Vitamin supplements

By Aarushi Gupta
Staff Writer

The now-famous Human Genome Project (HGP) sequenced the human genetic code in 2003 and effectively ‘mapped’ the human genome, allowing scientists around the world to localize the codes of distinct proteins that are necessary to human life (and some that are not). The results of the HGP told scientists where specific genes were located, but the particular genetic susceptibility or immunity of certain people to genetically linked diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes is still not understood. In a greater effort to better elucidate the mechanism by which some people contract these diseases, President Obama has introduced the Precision Medicine Initiative, which proposes collecting health information from approximately 1 million volunteers to better understand the underlying causes of genetic and metabolic diseases and therefore develop personalized therapeutic treatments based on a patients genetic information.

A task as daunting as this does not come cheap; the President estimates that this endeavor will cost approximately $215 million; 60 percent will go towards the National Institutes of Health’s work on deciphering the nuances of the human genome, and the other 40 percent will be dispersed among the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) to support the logistics of this operation, including patient confidentiality as well as creation of a database to promote the accessibility of the information.

‘Precision medicine’ refers to the use of patient genetic information to better understand the underlying causes of varying diseases and develop personalized therapeutic treatments in an effort of the medical community to move away from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to medicine; while the symptoms and physiological manifestations of diabetes, cancer and other metabolic diseases are similar across different patients, the causes of these diseases are not fully understood by medical professionals and scientists. What is becoming more apparent is that different people react differently to varying treatment options, based on their genetic susceptibility to specific metabolic processes. The precision medicine effort seeks to increase the availability of customized care and targeted treatments. However, the only way to understand the fundamental causes of these widespread diseases is through the analysis of a large pool of affected and non-affected patients, looking at how the genetic differences manifest into varying physiological outcomes. This work will be performed by the NIH, who will collect and analyze samples from 1 million volunteers to determine the genetic bases for better treatment options.

It is important to understand that this initiative relies on making the data more available to scientists – they already know how to analyze these samples, but suffer from a lack of data. Not only will the initiative play a role in gathering information, it will also make the results available to scientists all over the country, enabling academic researchers to team up and provide molecular explanations for these afflictions. The PMI would increase funding to chemistry, biophysics and molecular biology programs in universities across the country, which would be extremely beneficial for the scientific community. As stated by Gina Kolata in the New York Times, “If the precision medicine initiative supplies genetic and clinical data in a form that is easy to use, it would speed such studies, scientists say.”

Many people, including scientists and medical professionals, believe that this initiative is not a good idea. These detractors cite that precision medicine would not affect the numbers of people affected by generic diseases. Michael Joyner, an anesthesiologist and physiologist at Mayo Clinic, does not put his faith in what he calls “moonshot medicine”, or far-reaching medical initiatives like this one. He believes that there is “no clear genetic story” behind widespread diseases like cardiovascular failure, diabetes, and cancer, and that precision medicine could lead to unintended consequences. In response to his editorial, published in the International New York Times, several researchers have refuted Joyner’s claims with the simple premise of the entire study: collecting data from a large population set will shed light on the genetic tendencies of certain diseases. A 2011 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gives an example illustrating the current differences in treatment options between breast cancer, which has become personalized, and Type 2 diabetes, which is defined by its symptoms and unpredictability.

Similar ‘biobanks’ have been explored in other countries; the United Kingdom and Japan both have databanks with amassed data that is now being used to evaluate treatments for cancer. These studies have lead to use of cancer gene testing to guide the treatment of patients with certain mutations, which would not have been known without the large data set made available to researchers. The effects of biobanks have been beneficial for both societies, and has lead to significant strides in medical advancements.

Image by Caris Life Sciences


Vitamin supplements

By Aarushi Gupta
Staff Writer

Vitamins have become a booming industry in recent years. Businesses like The Vitamin Shoppe and Nature Made have made millions by isolating specific vitamins and minerals necessary for metabolic activity. However, recent studies have shown that an excess of certain vitamins may not only be unnecessary, but also harmful. In 2014, Nature published a piece which summarized the debate among scientists and health professionals regarding the use of vitamins in society, and several studies have shown that vitamins have no significant health benefit in terms of fighting cardiovascular disease or cancer.

Vitamins are organic compounds that organisms, such as humans and other animals, require to survive. Many vitamins cannot be made by the organism, and therefore must be obtained from the diet. They are often present as assistant molecules in metabolic pathways such as sugar breakdown and fatty acid biosynthesis. Historically, several diseases like scurvy and beriberi have been associated with vitamin deficiencies, and treatment of these ailments with vitamin supplements led scientists and medical professionals to believe that several disorders like cancer or heart disease could be cured with vitamins. Research has shown that in developed countries like the United States, nutrient supplements had almost no health effects or benefits.

While vitamins stand to benefit inhabitants of many developing nations where cases of malnourishment are common, the United States has long touted its own battle with the condition. Because so many foods are fortified with vitamins, the natural nutritional value of several foods has decreased, leading to malnutrition as well as obesity in the United States. This seems counterintuitive, but the best way to eradicate hunger issues in the United States is through consuming fresh fruits and vegetables and as nutrition professor Joanne Slavin says, “getting closer to production” by growing produce.

Scientists believe that vitamins are only needed in small amounts, and an excess of vitamins and other supplements can be ineffective or lead to further health problems. However, this is only true for a few supplements, like vitamin E, A, and C. Excesses of other vitamins are simply released in urine, which is a popular weakness of vitamin supplements. According to David Agus, physician and best-selling author of “The End of Illness”, Americans spend $28 billion per year in dietary supplements, including both vitamins and herbals. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have gone so far as to propose that the US cease producing vitamin supplements, because most of the money and the resources go to waste.

In fact, several trials conducted by the Alpha-Tocopherol Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Group were conducted to determine if vitamin additives could help the overall health of smokers. Interestingly enough, participants who consumed more B-carotene than necessary over five to eight years were 18 percent more likely to develop lung cancer. Because vitamins are involved with various kinds of primary and secondary metabolism, an overdose can lead to increased cell growth. In some cases, this cell growth can be uncontrollable and lead to cancer, depending on the individual.

Vitamins have shown their obvious potential when it comes to combating malnourishment in third world countries as well as diseases associated with the condition. Maybe citizens of the United States and other developed nations should cut back on vitamin production and spread proper information regarding nutrition and healthy choices in schools and workplaces.

Image by Shannon Kringen

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