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Cornell to co-lead NIH center for precision nutrition research

A five-year, $23 million award from the National Institutes of Health will put Cornell at the center of a significant federal investment in research aimed at customizing nutrition guidance.

The NIH on Jan. 20 announced the Division of Nutritional Sciences and RTI International (RTI), a nonprofit research institute, will co-lead a new center that coordinates research for the NIH’s Nutrition for Precision Health study.

Part of the All of Us Research Program, which is gathering health data from 1 million diverse Americans, the nutrition study will involve 10,000 participants and seeks to develop algorithms that predict individual responses to foods and dietary patterns.

“This is much needed for us to be able to come up with tailored guidance on what kind of diet and nutritional status we should be aspiring towards for optimal health and the prevention and treatment of chronic disease,” said Dr. Saurabh Mehta, the Janet and Gordon Lankton Professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, which is housed jointly in the College of Human Ecology and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Mehta is a principal investigator on the award with Marie Gantz, a senior research statistician at RTI. Together they will lead the study’s Research Coordinating Center, one of 14 centers and clinics receiving $170 million from the NIH Common Fund over five years, pending available funds.

“Despite the importance of a balanced, nourishing diet, there is no one-size-fits-all approach – more precise and dynamic nutritional recommendations are needed to improve health for individuals, and this has been impossible to achieve with the current standard food guidance,” Gantz said. “This work will give us unprecedented insight into the interplay between nutrition and health.”

According to the NIH, the study aims to advance understanding of how many factors – including dietary intake, microbiome, metabolism, nutritional status, genetics and the environment – can be combined into a personalized nutrition regimen.

The study has three phases:

  • Examine individual responses to different diets by studying the interactions between diet, genes, proteins, microbiome, metabolism and other contextual factors;
  • Use artificial intelligence to develop algorithms to predict individual responses to foods and dietary patterns; and
  • Validate algorithms for clinical applications.

In addition to coordination of research across the consortium of clinical and other centers, the center led by Cornell and RTI will facilitate the study’s research agenda by developing common protocols, such as how participants will be enrolled and how safety will be monitored and data recorded.

Mehta said the study will usher in a new era of nutrition research that will leverage technology developments including the application of AI-based methods to the study of nutrition. The combination of AI, predictive algorithms and mobile devices that could make precision nutrition guidance widely available, Mehta said, also is a potential game-changer for health equity.

“Computational power is increasingly more accessible and affordable,” said Mehta, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Global Development (CALS) and Department of Population Health Sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Being able to bridge some of these health disparities and make health care more accessible, this is very exciting.”

Patricia Cassano, the Alan D. Mathios Professor and director of the Division of Nutritional Sciences, and a co-investigator on the grant, said the Nutrition for Precision Health initiative represents a major investment by the NIH to better understand the role of nutrition in health and disease.

“With diet-related conditions contributing significant public health burden in the U.S. and globally,” Cassano said, “this project is expected to reveal new discoveries that will support the further development of evidence-based approaches to prevent and manage diet-related diseases.”