NC A&T University

Charlotte conference highlights region’s life-sciences research

November 05, 2012
By Jeremy Summers, NCBiotech Writer

Charlotte is known for its strong financial roots, diverse business climate and   for being the unofficial home of NASCAR.

Thanks to new commitments to education and research, the region is also gaining some recognition as a hotbed for cutting edge research and technologies in biotech and other life-sciences industries.

The growing scope of life-sciences research coming out of the Charlotte region was the focus of the 11th Annual Charlotte Life Sciences Conference, held October 25 at UNC Charlotte.

North Carolina Research Campus leads the way

Much of the research in the Charlotte region is conducted at the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC). The NCRC, located just north of Charlotte in Kannapolis, is home to teams of scientists conducting research in the fields of biotechnology, agricultural, food science and nutritional research.

The type of research being conducted at the NCRC is a “good indication of the kind of growth and progress we’re making in the Charlotte region in terms of life-sciences research and business development,” said Robert Wilhelm, Ph.D., vice chancellor for research and economic development at UNC Charlotte. “The growth there has been steady over a number of years and we’re starting to see an upswing in terms of activity on the campus.”

UNC Charlotte was the first school in the UNC system to have a presence at the NCRC, according to Wilhelm.

Opened in 2008, the campus is now home to a number of state universities conducting research in various fields. Schools with facilities on the NCRC include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, Duke University, Appalachian State University, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, North Carolina Central University, NC A&T University and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

Additionally, the NCRC is home to several businesses, including Dole Foods and LabCorp, a clinical services company specializing in genomic testing and new diagnostic technologies.

According to Michael Todd, executive director of the NCRC, the campus has assembled world-renowned life-sciences researchers and concentrated them into a single campus. This allows for collaboration and innovation.

“We have assembled the right people to positively impact human health,” said Todd.

The economic crisis hit the campus hard, Todd said. But the determined leadership and commitment of the schools and businesses helped the NCRC forge through the difficulties. The NCRC “campus has continued to grow and attract new partners,” said Todd.

The NCRC is a new and unique entity, combining public universities, private companies and even a non-profit. The campus now has more than 300 scientists and support staff and has attracted over $45 million of grant money.

“When you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, there’s no template,” said Todd.

Todd is working to bring in “big name, big impact” partners. He is also leading the charge to get students involved in the cutting edge research that will drive the industries of the future and create jobs for the state.

Campus emphasizes power of sound research

The conference featured a panel on the research that has been conducted at the NCRC since it opened four years ago.

Allen Brown, Ph.D., with the NCSU Plants for Human Health Institute, gave a presentation about the health benefits of broccoli and how his research can yield even greater benefits. “The problem is not all broccoli is created the same,” said Brown.

According to Brown, the research being done at the NCRC will allow his team to “develop broccoli varieties with enhanced and stable levels of nutrients and health promoting compounds.”

Similarly, Andrew Swick, Ph.D., a researcher at UNC-CH’s Nutrition Research Institute, discussed the obesity epidemic facing the country and how research being done at the NCRC can combat this problem.

Obesity is the second most common preventable disease in the world and the most common in the United States.

Losing weight is “mathematically very simple, but physiologically, very difficult,” said Swick. While most people can successfully lose weight from one point in time to another, many people are unable to keep the weight off, creating a very high recidivism rate for obesity.

Swick’s research focuses on regulating the gut as a key to weight control. For years, Swick said, the focus was on the brain, but the shift in focus to the gut, what Swick calls the “other brain,” may yield incredible results.

By studying the chemical reactions caused by different types of foods, Swick believes he can affect a person’s food intake level, directly contributing to weight gain and weight loss.

Wei Jia, Ph.D., professor at UNCG’s Center for Translational Biomedical Research, conducts research that focuses on the “metabolic interaction between the gut and liver and their implications in metabolic disorders.”

This type of research involves an approach known as metabolomics, or the study of a cell’s metabolism. According to Jia, scientists using metabolomics can predict the occurrence, recurrence and relapse of cancer in patients across divides that prevented this type of prediction in the past. This new approach can improve the survival rate for cancer patients by as much as five years, Jia said.

Jia and his team were recently featured in TIME magazine for their work in developing a urine test to screen for colon cancer, another possibility of metabolomics.

Jessica Schlueter, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioinformatic and genomics at UNC Charlotte, was also on the research panel.

Schlueter received a grant from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center for her work in bioinformatics. Bioinformatics is the application of statistics and computer science to the field of molecular biology.

Keynote speaker Derek Raghavan.

“The grant allowed us to expand our research lab,” Schlueter said. It allows for “training Ph.D. students how to be excellent bioinformaticians.”

Schlueter and her team use bioinformatics to create animal feed that is healthier and resistant to different stressors, such as drought and rot.

Research could impact cancer treatment

One of the biggest applications of the kind of research coming out of the NCRC is in treating cancer.

The conference’s keynote address came from Derek Raghavan, M.D. Ph.D., president of the Levine Cancer Institute at the Carolinas HealthCare System.

The treatment of cancer has come along way since the early 20th century, said Raghavan. “This was a time when scientists were thinking logically, but really didn’t understand the biology of cancer.”

At that time, nearly all patients with advanced cancer died, Raghavan said. This situation still exists in developing nations.

As treatment evolved, chemotherapy and other methods became part of the process, yielding more effective treatment. In the 1970s, there was a shift toward a combined approach. This approach used surgery to remove visible tumors and then follow surgery with chemotherapy. This led to drastically increased survival rates.

It was through sound scientific research, what Raghavan described as “rational empiricism,” that these improvements were made, he said. This type of approach yielded treatments and cures for pediatric and testicular cancers as well as leukemia and several types of lymphomas.

The key to treating cancer, Raghavan said, is understanding that it is molecularly unstable. Cancer can be driven by different mutations in different genes, which is what makes treatment so difficult.

But, Raghavan assured the audience, there is much to be encouraged by. “This is the era of personalized medicine,” he said. Research in recent decades has led scientists to understand that stimulating cell function in cancerous cells is a big step forward in prolonging life and improving quality of life.

“Improvements in cancer therapy and outcomes reflects good science and careful clinical research, “ said Raghavan, who emphasized the steady, careful, hypothesis-driven clinical research as the key to improving cancer treatment. “That’s how we’ll make a real impact.”

Collaboration key to success

Many of the researchers at the NCRC pointed to collaboration as a key to the success of the campus.

“If you have a question about something, all you have to do is walk upstairs,” said Kelly Sheppard, with UNC-CH’s Nutrition Research Institute.

“One of the great things about working in one of the technology areas is getting to work with just about everybody on campus,” said Cory Brouwer, Ph.D., director of UNC Charlotte’s Bioinformatics Services Decision.

That collaboration has allowed for the commercialization of some of the research coming out of the campus.

The NCRC is a good example of “how the research scientists are doing leads to not just new products, but new companies in the region,” said John Cox, president of the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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