In the literature the term “personalised nutrition” is defined in different ways as it seems that not rigorous definition is agreed. Nevertheless, the generic context is the following: nutritionists and doctors need to collect as much information as possible from the individual including his or her characteristics, habits, and health status. The information will then be processed by tailored algorithms and tools and the outcome is the development of targeted nutritional advice which can be delivered in the form of products (e.g. food supplements) and/or services, e.g. advanced food diaries and instruction delivering apps in our smart phones. In the end, the dietary factors of the individuals will be tailored based on recognised links between diseases (e.g. heart disease and diabetes), wellbeing and dietary patterns. This implies day-to-day interventions suited for each individual with clear health benefits.
What is a key point in the description above is the need to: (a) obtain a deep understanding the cause and effect and also the underlying mechanisms that connect the nutrients intake (diet) with the health status and wellbeing of the individuals and, (b) collect sufficient quantitate understanding (data) of the individual, data that can vary in a day-to-day basis but also during the day. And while the first point is at the focus of the scientific community, the collection of suitable data at a regular basis is at the core of technology advancements as well.
What kind of data and measurements does an effective personalised nutrition scheme utilizes? Nutrigenetics is definitely an important aspect, the way the genotype of the individual defines the link between diet and health status. Fortunately, this is an analysis that takes place once. In other cases, however, the measurements of interest are needed to be obtained at a regular basis. Metabolomics (measurements of metabolites) and microbiomics (taking measurements and characterizing the microbes in human gut) are important factors. The more effective a personalised nutrition scheme is, the more data and dimensions it needs to integrate.
The big question that arises is what would be the most efficient way to collect the needed data. Many of the biomarkers of interest are analysed in blood samples. Finger prick is perhaps the most painless way, nevertheless it involves the use of a needle to penetrate the skin of the fingertip. It is an unambiguous true that none like needles. But even if the blood samples are available, analysis typical involve the transferring to a well-equipped lab, the processing of the samples by trained personnel, the use of suitable equipment (sometimes heavy, costly, or even hard to find) and, of course, the waiting until the results are ready. All these factors prohibit the use of big data approaches for effective personalised nutrition schemes unless new equipment becomes available. An ideal tool might look as in the famous Star Trek movies. The tricorder is a handheld tool that operates from a small distance from the body (contact-less operation) and provides the user (the medical doctor) on a plethora of biomarkers of the patient in the blink of an eye. Before judging that this is clearly a fictional sci-fi instrument with no connection with reality, let’s first consider what technological advances has achieved already: the wearing of a watch that measures our blood pressure, heart rate or even recording a full electrocardiogram would seen as sci-fi 50 years ago, a tool that one can easily buy from a local store (or order through a telephone!).
Figure 1. The famous Tricorder in the sci-fi movies Star Trek would be the ideal tool for fact-based personalised nutrition.
To develop the tricorder is something not foreseen in the near future, although a relevant prize was already announced few years ago (https://www.xprize.org/prizes/tricorder) . However, several research activities are heading towards this goal. Two of the most promising technologies currently available are laser-based spectroscopy and low-cost printed sensors. While each approach has its own merit, no technology alone can lead to the ultimate tool. The key to success is the combination of the most promising technologies in holistic approaches of ever-increasing impact. NUTRISHIELD incorporates some baby steps towards the tricorder of the future. One aspect is the significant enhancement of the laser-based measuring approaches tailoring novel laser technologies and the other is the effective combination of spectroscopy and printed electronics tools for analysis of body fluids (urine analysis).
Moreover, NUTRISHIELD goes beyond the typical blood and urine analysis. For the efficient gathering of data needed, another question to be asked is how we can measure the ongoing processes in the human body in a non-intrusive manner. And what is more a more convenient vehicle than the exhaled breath, a procedure very similar to the alcohol breath test widely conducted by the law enforcement authorities. More of the much promising NUTRISHIELD technologies are described in the numerous blogs available on the website of the project. What we need to keep in mind is that what the future holds is usually beyond our imagination. Is that the case, or perhaps sci-fi can indeed depict the future, given we are open to imagine it?