NIH awards $170M to national network of universities for Nutrition for Precision Health study

person eating salad

The University of Chicago, Northwestern University and Illinois Institute of Technology are part of a mega-National Institutes of Health (NIH) $170 million program that aims to be the first comprehensive study to investigate precision nutrition. The goal of “Nutrition for Precision Health,” powered by the All of Us Research Program (NPH), is to develop algorithms to predict individual responses to food and dietary routines.

The group, led by Northwestern University, will comprise the Illinois Precision Nutrition Research consortium, one of six centers around the country. Their grant will total more than $13 million awarded over five years, pending availability of funds.

Precision nutrition, also known as personalized nutrition, will move away from "one-size-fits-all" diet recommendations and create a customized diet plan for people based on individual differences, such as genetics and metabolism.

“Tailored precision nutrition will allow providers to make dietary recommendations that consider an individual’s lifestyle and environment in addition to biology, genetics, medical history and even gut microbes that can help prevent or improve disease,” said Brisa Aschebrook-Kilfoy, PhD, Associate Professor and the principal investigator at UChicago.

“At UChicago, we have already collected much of the key information needed to develop the algorithms required to do this work from thousands of research participants," she said. "The addition of nutrition research to the already robust dataset, especially in our patient population and in the communities we serve, can ensure that the nutrition algorithm is relevant in our diverse Chicago and South Side contexts.”

Some people may have a biological profile that suggests they will benefit from a diet including a greater percentage of calories from fatty acids versus others who appear to require a higher percentage of calories from plant-based protein.

“The albatross around the neck of nutrition research has always been the absence of objective data,” said Linda Van Horn, PhD, RDN, Professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and one of the senior principal investigators. “We also rely on participants' willingness to confess, ‘I had three chocolate chip cookies, not just one.’ Unfortunately, most people can barely remember what they had for breakfast by lunchtime. We’ve been handicapped by the absence of objective data.”

Van Horn said the study will finally allow researchers to align objective biomarkers with subjective diet assessment data.

The Nutrition for Precision Health clinical studies are empowered by the All of Us Research Program already underway at UChicago, which is led by Aschebrook-Kilfoy and Habib Ahsan, MD, Director of the Institute for Precision and Population Health at UChicago Medicine. The nationwide program is recruiting one million or more people to create one of the largest health databases ever. Researchers from many medical perspectives can use these data to better understand disease.

The newest project will first recruit 2,000 individuals to participate in three different modules of nutrition research. The first module will record the meals that the subjects have eaten over two weeks, then the results of a feeding challenge. Each subject will then eat a specific meal at a the UChicago clinic and undergo extensive tests measuring blood pressure, heart rate, blood lipids, glucose and other biomarkers. The process will be repeated three times with meals that vary in composition.

The second module involves a feeding study where researchers send prepared meals to 400 participants’ homes for two weeks. The subjects will return to the clinics and be retested.

In the third module, 200 people will be housed and fed carefully designed and uniformly measured diets under supervision and finally tested again while living on the Hyde Park campus.

“The data from these three modules will provide complementary information on the individual response to diets and dietary alterations,” said Aschebrook-Kilfoy. “We plan to collect extensive data from surveys, biologic samples, and biometric information that will be used to understand the impact of food on many aspects of the body's response.”

The NIH grant supporting the research is UG1 HD107697-01.

All of Us and Nutrition for Precision Health, powered by the All of Us Research Program, are service marks of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A version of this release was originally written by Northwestern University.