potential to benefit human health in important ways. In the 1920s, for example, one of the early successes of the fledgling NIH was the discovery by Joseph Goldberger that he could cure pellagra, a deficiency disease characterized by dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and eventual death, by the simple expedient of adding baker’s yeast to the diet. (It would take another decade to identify niacin as the ingredient in baker’s yeast that was the factor that prevented pellagra.)
Unfortunately, Healy said, the field of nutrition has been woefully neglected by the biomedical community over the years. Medical schools, for example, spend little time teaching nutrition to medical students; and academic researchers find it difficult to get funding for nutrition research. Part of the reason for that neglect, historically, was the perception in the first half of the 20th century that nutrition was “women’s work” that was best left to home economics departments; and, indeed, many of the early leaders in the science of nutrition were women, including Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its first female instructor, and Lenna F. Cooper and Lulu C. Graves, who founded the American Dietetic Association.
Healy experienced that neglect firsthand in the early 1990s when, as NIH director, she pushed for a bionutrition initiative to bring different fields together to do integrated systemswide research on food and nutrition. According to the document outlining the proposed initiative, “Bionutrition research employs molecular and genetic techniques to study the metabolic and behavioral consequences of food and nutrients and explores the fundamental role nutrition plays in health maintenance and disease treatment. It encompasses studies on nutrients at the cellular level, the metabolic functioning of nutrients in living organisms including humans, blessedly, and studies on gene-nutrition-environment interactions.”
The initiative failed to gain support, in part because of the difficulty of convincing scientists from different areas to come together in a cross-disciplinary project, but also because it failed to capture the interest of either the politicians who would be funding it or the broader public. It was, in Healy’s words, “dull, totally and utterly dull.”
That is not a problem with nutrigenomics today, as the field has already captured the public’s imagination. A number of commercial nutrigenomics websites, for example, offer to analyze a person’s DNA and provide advice on what foods to eat and what foods to avoid. If anything, the problem with nutrigenomics could be raising expectations too high. “This is a young field,” Healy said, “and you could kill it off very quickly by overpromising.”
Nevertheless, the promise is real. For the first time, researchers have the tools to understand how genes and nutrients interact on the molecular level—to drive hard science into nutrition, as Healy put it. The human