December 20, 2022

Blog Post

How a Nutritional ‘Moonshot’ Will Transform Health

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Humanity is at its best when we shoot for the moon.

The most famous moonshot was the one that got us to the moon in 1969. But the past few decades are full of other major advances when collaborative scientific breakthroughs transformed our understanding of our planet and ourselves.

The Human Genome Project which began in 1990 and was funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) was a tour de force of biological discovery that allowed us to look deeper into the building blocks of human genetics and whose findings are now used routinely in medical diagnostics, biotechnology, and as an essential tool for biopharmaceutical development. The Connectome Project, also funded by the NIH, is an ongoing moonshot that began in 2009 to decipher how the human brain’s electrical connectors contribute to creating our thoughts, feelings, and actions with incredible implications for health and disease. There are similar efforts in aeronautics, transportation, electricity, and President Biden’s own declared moonshot to cure cancer.

A recent paper published in Nature Food to inform the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health proposes a public challenge to establish a National Institute for Nutrition under the NIH to accelerate a new “nutritional moonshot.” The aim is to find ways to transform nutrition as an initiative of public health.

Our most potent tools to accomplish this goal are bioactive compounds found in nature, which are small pieces of the much larger "plant metabolome." But in spite of their importance, we know relatively little about them. A “Plant Metabolome” project, if embraced, would accelerate the necessary clinical evidence to advance research on plant bioactives and validate their medicinal impact on human health. It’s a project that holds the promise of transforming the health of everyone on earth and should be included in the NIH’s 10-year strategic plan to accelerate nutrition research.

These small molecule compounds are all around us. Bioactives help plants grow and survive, and when we consume them they unlock specific receptors in our body that trigger a cascade of biological responses that can support our health at every level. The powerful antioxidant lycopene in tomatoes has been shown to be associated with a decreased risk of chronic diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. The potent anti-inflammatory curcumin in turmeric aids in the management of oxidative and inflammatory conditions, metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia. Less well-known bioactives such as catechin (found in strawberries), epicatechin (found in dark chocolate), and epigallocatechin gallate (found in green tea) have been shown to cross the blood brain barrier to impart neuroprotective benefits, underscoring just how essential bioactives are to a healthy body. 

Science only knows less than 1 percent of bioactives from nature—and that’s a generous estimate. The other 99 percent have the combined potential to act as preventative medicine for the world’s most debilitating chronic diseases. They will help develop tomorrow’s nutritional products, create guidance for how to use food as medicine, and establish how to grow and source the best plant varieties to maximize their power. 

Americans are falling dramatically short of their daily fruit and vegetable intake requirements, which is fueling our public health crisis of chronic disease. We often think of a poor diet as overconsuming sugar, salt, and fat, but the Global Burden of Disease Study, the world’s most comprehensive analysis of how diet impacts human health, has shown that these disease states are much more a consequence of dramatically under-consuming whole vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains, which are rich sources of bioactive compounds. This is why it's not an exaggeration to say that unlocking more bioactives and mapping their effects on our biological systems has a seismic and global potential to transform human health.

Brightseed, the company I co-founded in 2017, is leading the effort to map and understand the total phytochemical composition of the edible and medicinal plant kingdom, including fungi and microbes, and illuminate their total impact on human biology.  Phase 1 of this effort is already underway. Finding bioactive compounds used to be like finding a needle in a haystack, and mapping their mechanism of action in human biology was like finding the precise key to an unknowable lock. Brightseed’s artificial intelligence, Forager, is discovering bioactives and predicting their impact on human biology at a rate that was previously impossible. With a discovery process ten times faster than traditional research, and with a hit rate 100 times higher than typical drug discovery, we’ve already found thousands of new bioactives that have the potential to beneficially modulate biological processes in the human body and promote health in every organ and biological system.  By the end of 2025, Forager will expand what is known to science by 100x and in effect, host the largest natural compound library in the world.

Private sector innovation paired with academic and NGO projects like the Periodic Table of Food are building our knowledge base on plants to enable new solutions that will support nutritional and health equity.  With these discoveries comes Phase 2, where rapid discovery must be met with rapid validation for efficacy and safety. Collaborations between innovators, scientists, and government will help design clinical trials to be free of bias, fund them to be sufficient in scope, and interpret their results to build trust in their use. These partnerships can be powerful. The rapid deployment of Covid-19 vaccines in 2021 proved that with sufficient will and resources, a motivated community of partners can accomplish major goals much faster than on traditional timelines.

This sort of diverse collaboration on bioactives can and will be transformative. Through their rapid integration into our food and health systems, safe and effective bioactives can redefine nutrition as we know it, inform a new class of natural medicines, make food-as-medicine a reality, and drive a new standard of preventative healthcare and personalized medicine.

That might not be as impressive as landing on the moon. But considering how many people’s lives will be improved by this moonshot, I think it’ll be better.


Written by

Jim Flatt

Co-Founder and CEO of Brightseed


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