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August 2008
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Matching Genes and Vitamins
A Personalized Plan May Be in Your Future

Illustration of vitamin bottle with a man’s face on it, with DNA and vitamins coming out the top

You may be one of the many people who take vitamin and mineral supplements as a kind of insurance plan, to make sure your body’s getting enough of all the nutrients you need. New research suggests that doctors may one day be able to design a personalized supplement plan that’s best for your particular body.

We all carry around little glitches, called mutations, in the DNA sequences that make up our genes. These changes can occur naturally. Since our DNA sequences are made of billions of smaller pieces strung together, it would be impossible for us not to carry some mutations. Most are completely harmless, but others can cause diseases and disorders.

A new study suggests that some of these genetic flaws could be “fixed” by taking vitamin and mineral supplements. Professor Jasper Rine at the University of California, Berkeley and his colleagues looked at a gene that contains the code for an enzyme called MTHFR. Among other things, this enzyme plays an important role in processing amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

The researchers collected DNA samples from over 500 people from different ethnic backgrounds and found several variants of the enzyme. They inserted the genes for these variants into yeast cells to test their function and found that several mutations affected how well MTHFR did its work. Even slight variations in the enzyme affected its activity. That means these variations can also affect the metabolism of the people who carry them.

But the researchers figured out a way to compensate. Enzymes often need to bind vitamins and minerals to work properly. MTHFR needs the vitamin folate. The researchers were able to get 4 of the 5 mutant enzymes to work normally again by adding extra folate.

Rine and his colleagues estimate that most people have several mutations in their enzymes. But there’s no reason to panic, Rine believes, because vitamin and mineral supplements can be used to fix up some of these defective enzymes. By adding vitamins and minerals to your body, you could be stabilizing the mutant enzymes in your body.

Of course, everyone is different, and the generic vitamins at the grocery store might not be tailored to your body’s specific needs. Most experts believe that if you eat a healthy diet in the first place, you probably don’t need to supplement it with extra nutrients.

Doctors do often advise women of child-bearing age to take folic acid (a form of folate), and many people don’t get enough calcium. Rine looks to a future where you can be tested for your specific mutations and given the proper vitamins and minerals to fix your problems.

Rine says his research gives people the “good news in their personal genome.” One day, your doctor may be able to tell you what extra nutrients you need to tune up your body before something goes wrong.

Definitions iconDefinitions

A type of protein that does work around the cell.

Stretches of DNA, a substance you inherit from your parents, that define characteristics like height and eye color, along with how likely you are to get certain diseases.

The set of all the genes in a person.

A change in a DNA sequence.

Wise Choices iconWise Choices
Healthy Eating Plan
Doctors may one day be able to tell you exactly what vitamins and minerals your body needs. Until then, it’s best to eat a variety of nutrient-packed foods every day. According to the latest expert recommendations, a healthy eating plan is one that:

  • Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products.
  • Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts.
  • Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium) and added sugars.

Links iconWeb Sites

The End of One-Size-Fits-All Medicine?

Medicines for You

Supplementing Your Diet

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