Across the country, academic scientists are struggling with tight budgets for equipment and staff. In the North Carolina Piedmont town of Kannapolis, however, researchers affiliated with half a dozen universities and several corporations work in bright, modern laboratory buildings whose decor, equipment, and scientific resources verge on the lavish. Once the home of Cannon Towels, the former mill town demolished its textile plants in the early 2000s and has undergone a startling transformation into an imposing, even grandiose, city of science, thanks to the vision and dollars of billionaire industrialist, philanthropist and diet enthusiast David H. Murdock.
Among other researchers, we met food scientist Mary Ann Lila, molecular geneticist Allan Brown, metabolic engineer Xu “Sirius” Li, and pharmacogeneticist Slavko Komarnytsky, all of whom hold faculty positions at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. As members of its Plants for Human Health Institute, they study the properties of broccoli, berries, and other foods that can contribute to human health. The fact that scientists who would ordinarily work in different buildings on a traditional university campus do their research in adjacent laboratories at NCRC encourages fertile, productive collaborations, Komarnytsky noted.
- David Nieman, director of Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Laboratory, who explained studies on the relationship between particular molecules present in plants and age- and exercise-related changes in human tissues.
- Steven Ziesel, director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute, who spoke about his studies on choline’s role in cognitive development as an example of his institute’s work.
- Corey Brouwer of the Bioinformatics Research Services Division of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who described the computational resources available to researchers at NCRC.
- Ashley Dunham, who gave an overview of Duke University’s MURDOCK (Measurement to Understand the Reclassification of Disease of Cabarrus/Kannapolis) Study, a longitudinal study of the local population that will relate biomarkers to various diseases and, she joked, hopefully make Kannapolis as famous in public health circles as Framingham, Massachusetts.
As the vision of a single man, and one who “never had a boss in [his] whole life,” according to the New York Times, the Kannapolis campus feels a bit like a scientific Emerald City of Oz. The single-minded (and some might say eccentric) focus of so extravagantly equipped a facility could also lead some to the impression that NCRC is a rich man’s expensive folly. But serious scientists are tackling serious questions, such as how to improve the nutrition of seriously deprived populations, how foods can play a greater role in preventing cancer, who is susceptible to dietary deficiencies related to birth defects, and what can be done to reduce disabling muscle-wasting.
On the way back to Raleigh, many of the tour members snacked on succulent, vinegary Carolina pulled-pork barbecue washed down with local beer or Cheerwine, the state’s distinctive cherry-flavored soda pop. Probably none of these treats would rank highly among Murdock’s preferred nutriment, but his extraordinary experiment in focused science had given us a great deal of food for thought.