According to its vision statement, the NCRC's goal is to become "the world's epicenter of nutrition and disease research." Photo courtesy of NCRC
According to its vision statement, the NCRC's goal is to become "the world's epicenter of nutrition and disease research." Photo courtesy of NCRC

According to its vision statement, the goal of the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis is to become “the world’s epicenter of nutrition and disease research.”

By Whitney L.J. Howell

A small, rural town once known for pillows and sheets is an unlikely backdrop for innovative, groundbreaking nutrition and health research. But that’s just where to find the North Carolina Research Campus and its nearly 20 investigative affiliates.

Nestled in Kannapolis, this 350-acre campus, known as the NCRC, is a bustling, collaborative hub that brings together academic, industry and community partners dedicated to improving human health. It’s integrally involved with creating the city’s new brand: The Healthy Life.

According to its vision statement, the NCRC’s goal is to become “the world’s epicenter of nutrition and disease research.”
Photo courtesy of NCRC

“Nowhere else in the world do you have one campus that houses this many great institutions in one place,” said Lynne Scott Safrit, who leads Castle & Cooke, which oversees the NCRC’s development. “The vision from the beginning was [that] through the close physical proximity of labs, facilities and faculty you’d begin to find scientific discoveries happening in a wholly different way.”

And that’s exactly what’s occurred, Safrit said, as researchers work, eat and take breaks together daily. In fact, this collaborative spirit led NCRC founder and Dole Food Company chief David H. Murdock to commit – on top of his initial $600 million investment – a $15 million annual endowment to the David H. Murdock Research Institute. The institute houses one of the largest scientific equipment collections worldwide.

Within 30 years, this gift will equal more than $500 million for the NCRC to improve nutrition and fight chronic diseases, Safrit said.

“The Institute will really start to develop its own research mural that hasn’t been possible in the past. By increasing the funding, the hope is that DHMRI will attract a world-class leader from the scientific community,” she said. “We’ll be able to grow the science staff through this funding and bring in additional funding from other sources with similar interests in nutrition and health.”

The local impact

Announced in 2005, the NCRC revitalized Kannapolis after the textile-industry bust crippled the local economy. Recently, city leaders opted to build a new government center in the middle of campus, Safrit said. It will include a large meeting space that, once completed, will host science meetings and other conferences that were never possible before.

Research from NCRC has found bananas are equally as effective as sports drinks at fueling high-intensity workouts. Photo courtesy: David Nieman, Appalachian State Human Performance Lab.

The influx of money and job growth has been one of the biggest impacts. By the end of fiscal year 2013, not only had the UNC universities affiliated with the NCRC amassed more than $43 million in grants but those seven academic partners together had also created 151 new local jobs.

Add in other campus collaborators, and that number jumps to nearly 1,000 employment opportunities. According to NCRC statistics, local residents filled approximately half of those jobs.

Classes aren’t held on the campus but it is possible for college and graduate students to apply for internships in five of the groups: the Appalachian State Human Performance Lab, the NCSU Plants for Human Health Institute, the Plant Pathways Elucidation Project (P2EP, a $1.9 million, first-of-its-kind program that brings college students in to study how plants impact human health), the UNC-Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute and the Murdock Research Institute.

For example, the MURDOCK Study, an initiative looking at genomic links across major chronic diseases, hired roughly 50 local residents to conduct outreach in schools and churches. Their charge is to ensure the public understands the study’s potential impact. The ultimate goal: using advanced genomic technologies to learn more about disease and improve prevention practices.

The Cabarrus Health Alliance, the county’s public-health agency located on the NCRC campus, is one community organization that has experienced growth as well. Like MURDOCK, it’s added 50 of those 1,000 new jobs.

“It’s unusual for a public-health agency,” said William Pilkington, CHA’s chief executive officer and public-health director. “Most agencies are cutting left and right, but we’re adding employees because we’re working with the research campus partners through the grants we’ve gone after.”

Through investigative relationships with the NCRC, CHA won grants from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and other organizations, he said. Most recently, CHA received a three-year, $3 million-a-year Institute for Research & Poverty RIDGE Center for National Food and Nutrition Assistance Research grant focused on food security and choices, consumption patterns and nutritional and diet-related health outcomes.

Broccoli reveals its secrets to researchers who hope to breed better plants at the NCRC in Kannapolis. Illustration courtesy Ellen Ward, used with permission.

Consequently, the NCRC-CHA alliance is creating healthier local communities. Not only has the collaboration changed how CHA tailors diabetes information dissemination to include mobile texting and direct, in-hand distribution, but it also provides free healthy cooking classes. The underlying key to success, Pilkington said, is location.

“There’s an advantage to being on campus. People associate us with research,” he said. “If we were located in a typical health department, we’d be begging people to come and try our programs. Right now, we have a cooking class for healthy Halloween treats, and we’re over-subscribed.”

The research effect

NCRC research effects extend throughout North Carolina and beyond, but Kannapolis and its residents feel much of the initial impact, said David Neiman, director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab on campus.

The lab directly touches the community, he said, because researchers share study results with participants so they can learn how stress and different food consumptions affect the body’s performance abilities.

In a recent study, for example, his lab showed bananas are equally as effective as sports drinks at fueling high-intensity workouts. Plus, they’re cheaper, and the fruit adds fiber, potassium and Vitamin C to the body. A single banana also has around 100 calories – less than half the amount in an average, 20-ounce sports drink.

“We think involving residents in research educates the community and provides funding for people,” Neiman said. “They can be proud when they see the results of our research in the media and know they were a subject in that study.”

To date, the lab, which launched in 2009, has brought in $3.5 million in industry funding, and $500,000 of that has been funneled directly into the community through stipend payments to hundreds of research participants, he said.

North Carolina A&T State University’s Center for Excellent in Post-Harvest Technologies has also incorporated local resources into its food-safety and nutrient-preservation research. The lab frequently studies the prevalence of E. coli, listeria and salmonella, bacteria known to cause food poisoning in humans.

Additionally, said lead food scientist Leonard Williams, the lab shares a five-year, $25 million grant with North Carolina State University to collect samples of the leading food-contamination bacterium norovirus from fruits and vegetables.

Most recently, the lab completed a two-year study examining the quality of locally grown produce sold at farmers markets in counties along the I-85 corridor, including Davidson, Mecklenburg, Guilford and Cabarrus counties. The results, Williams said, have been heartening.

“What’s amazing is that our produce sold at farmers markets is extremely safe. There are very low levels or low incidence of food-borne pathogens detected,” Williams said. “That means our farmers are delivering safe, wholesome supplies of fruits and vegetables to consumers.”

These findings will ultimately – and positively – impact their bottom lines and abilities to market their products, he said.

Whether the individual endeavor is economic or research, Safrit said, the NCRC is on track to bring together campus and surrounding area residents to fulfill its mission of improving human health, agriculture and nutrition.

“It’s really a community effort. We’re seeing people buy into the vision that Kannapolis is going to be about science and health,” she said. “Ten years from now, we’re going to be able to say we made a huge difference in the world with what we’ve learned about nutrition and health. We’ll be able to share with our community and state good health, diet and lifestyle choices.”

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