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It's In the Genes

Dr. Jose OrdovasWorking in what he calls "the lab of the future" at Tufts' Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, senior scientist Jose Ordovas explores the ways in which the linkages between nutrition, behavior and genetics impact human health.


It may sound like something straight out of a futuristic, utopian novel or movie: a personalized road map for every individual charting exactly how he or she can have the longest, healthiest and happiest life possible. But for Tufts' Dr. Jose Ordovas - a world-renowned pioneer in the field of nutrigenomics - that dream is steadily becoming a reality.

"We're at the point where [the demographics of ] populations around the world are changing: there's increased longevity, but hopefully those accumulating years have a good quality of life - and for that we need disease prevention," says Ordovas. "We can use genetic tools to identify predispositions to disease and tailor the proper recommendations - diet, physical activity, environmental factors, even drug therapies, anything that can be controlled."

Ordovas' cutting-edge research, which was recently featured on the cover of Newsweek, could revolutionize our approach to achieving optimal health.

"We hope to be able to put what we call ‘personalized nutrition' into the reach of everyone, to be able to provide the best advice about not only nutrition, but also behavior - what behavioral changes can lower risk for diseases," he continues, adding that "genetic research gives you an idea of what could be your life path; the steps you can take towards disease prevention and health optimization."

Genetic knowledge would be good news for those predisposed to diseases - as well as for those gene-lottery winners whose genetic makeup is essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card.

"If you're one of the lucky ones who's genetically protected from disease, you've been blessed by nature and you could do almost whatever you want!" Ordovas laughs.

According to Ordovas, a native of Spain who has been with Tufts since 1982, the eventual proliferation of "personalized nutrition" will have effects that are societally as well as personally beneficial.

"Rather than having a downward decline, people's health will plateau," he says. "People will still eventually die, but without those several decades of feeling not so good, which has a huge cost to society. The switch from the elderly being costly to society to being consumers - which you are when you feel well - will be a major change."

For over 20 years, Ordovas's research has been oriented around making that major change possible. His insights into the ways genetics, behavior and nutrition interact to impact human health - particularly within the realms of heart disease and obesity - have earned him accolades.

"One of the things that has been so rewarding is that I have been billed by my colleagues as a pioneer in this area," he says. "We've been publishing continuously and producing quite a few models that others go on to study."

Ordovas traces his interest in the field of nutrigenomics back to 1983, shortly after he had moved from Spain to the United States to do post-doctoral work with the first director of Tufts' USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA), where he is currently the Director of the Nutrition and Genomics Lab. ("The building was still being finished - I was one of the originals," he laughs.)

At the time, Ordovas's focus was on biochemistry: he had recently completed his doctoral thesis at Spain's University of Zaragoza on the metabolism of lipoproteins, which are considered to be a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

"My initial approach to lipoproteins was as a biochemist, trying to understand how they were made and such - that wasn't known at the beginning," he says. "I was studying ways to separate the lipoproteins, and little by little, started to look into their clinical applications in cardiovascular disease."

Accordingly, in 1983, he attended one of the major meetings of the American Heart Association - where, for the first time, he became fascinated by the intersection between biology and genetics with regard to human health.

"There was a presentation focused on genes, which at that time we didn't know much about," Ordovas says. "I became very much interested in the unknown; in this new realm of science, genetics. That's how I got hooked."

Dr. Jose Ordovas

"When you're working on a new field, you're excited - you approach it with excitement and a little bit of naivete: you think what you're working on will solve all the world's problems," Ordovas says. "But in new initiatives, people make mistakes - you run into walls, you fall down. At the beginning, we were in the dark."

Since then, Ordovas has immersed himself in nutrigenomics, and has been heralded as a pioneer in the field on local, national and international levels. But he hasn't done it all on his own: he's worked in conjunction with the team of scientists at the HNRCA, which includes experts in such fields as metabolism, obesity, physiology, epidemiology, molecular biology and biochemistry.

"Working on human genetics at Tufts gives me the opportunity to collaborate with many people," he says. "If someone wants to do population studies on genetics, for example, we have the expertise to do that."

The scope of Ordovas's collaborations, however, reaches beyond university - and even national - borders.

"What has really enriched our ability to contribute to the understanding of genetics is that we have taken a global approach," he says. "We would not be able to do all of this ourselves: instead, we work in what I call a virtual lab, not with the people you see every day, but that you do interact with every day over the phone or the internet and so on.

"Every day, I work with people in Australia, North and Southeast Asia, Europe, South America, Central America...all over the globe," Ordovas adds. "I feel like I'm traveling around the world by interacting with my collaborators."

Ordovas doesn't just feel like he's traveling around the world. Most weeks, in fact, he actually is.

"I can go back and forth from some countries in one day, so when I'm there, I try not to waste any time, especially with collaborations in nearby countries, like the UK or Spain - that's easy," he says. "Working in Korea and Singapore, my two points of focus in Asia, takes a little longer: I go there, do what I have to do, and rush back."

Ordovas says that working in a young field like nutrigenomics is "very interesting, and also very complex and time-consuming."

"When you're working on a new field, you're excited - you approach it with excitement and a little bit of naivete: you think what you're working on will solve all the world's problems," Ordovas says. "But in new initiatives, people make mistakes - you run into walls, you fall down. At the beginning, we were in the dark."

The advent of new scientific technology has facilitated Ordovas and his colleagues' climb out of that darkness.

"When I was researching my doctoral thesis, if you asked somebody about statistics, everything was done by hand.," he says. "We spent six months on what would take three to four minutes to do now. What we can do in a lab now in one day could take one year or more to do 20 years ago, or it was just entirely unfeasible to achieve."

Having advanced technology like that at the HNRCA doesn't mean that life at the forefront of the genetic frontier always goes smoothly, however: "People ask me how we've been able to achieve what we've achieved, and I tell them, learning from our mistakes," Ordovas says.

"We try to be very cautious in terms of interpretation," he adds of his findings. "So far, these are research tools only; they're for achieving the goal I described [of making ‘personalized nutrition' available to everyone]. They can't be translated yet into a practical application for the general population - that will take some years."

According to Ordovas, the quest to unlock the genetic keys to personalized nutrition is comparable to the quest to discover a cure for cancer.

"One day, someone in one place is not just going to discover a cure for cancer - it's being done step-by-step across the globe," he says. "It's the same with this: a slow buildup until we feel comfortable with the "product."

"We're collecting and putting in place pieces of a jig-saw puzzle to build the "Big Picture" - there are no huge ‘breakthroughs'; progress is piece-by-piece, just like with the puzzle" he continues.

Ordovas' outlook, however, is just as optimistic as it is realistic.

"Every time you discover one of those pieces," he says, "you feel happy and excited and think, ‘That's one less until we're finished!'"


Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006

Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at this July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.

This story originally ran on March 7, 2005