by Jessica Wapner, AARP The Magazine, April/May 2013
Much of the work at NCRC is focused on investigating “superfoods” such as berries, ginger and broccoli to discover how they reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Some labs at NCRC are pioneering the field of nutrigenomics, the study of how genes affect nutrition and vice versa. Most NCRC research is funded by the scientists’ home institutions, but one effort is funded by Murdock himself: a project to catalog DNA in 50,000 blood and urine samples from citizens in Kannapolis and surrounding Cabarrus County. Researchers hope to discover genetic connections among diseases and develop new ways of treating and preventing them. The study is called “Measurement to Understand the Reclassification of Disease of Cabarrus/Kannapolis (MURDOCK).” So far, Murdock has donated $35 million to the effort — enough to keep it running for 10 to 15 years. He visits its office regularly, and “he’s very hands-on,” says Ashley Dunham, Ph.D., of the Duke University Translational Medicine Institute, who directs the study. “His favorite thing is to go out to community groups” to urge locals to donate their DNA to the cause.
At a time when the feds are cutting back on research funding, this investment has garnered praise nationwide. “Murdock wants to give big bucks to see good research done,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., an expert in nutrigenomics and professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University in Boston. NCRC scientists “have an opportunity to make a significant contribution,” he says.
Researchers admit that close ties between industry and academia need to be monitored, so companies don’t try to distort findings that threaten their bottom lines. But so far, NCRC’s setup has raised few eyebrows. “As long as the private sector doesn’t have the capability to silence individual findings, I think it’s exciting,” says James Simon, Ph.D., who directs the New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products Program at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
If NCRC may one day improve lives around the world, it is also beginning to do so closer to home. Kannapolis, a city of about 43,000, is still struggling. NCRC currently employs only 300 locals, a far cry from the thousands who worked in textiles. But 300 people per day attend a community college that Murdock built as part of NCRC, where they are gaining the training needed to compete for skilled jobs on campus. Safrit projects that NCRC will eventually employ 5,000 people — an even mix of locals and transplants. The campus’s growth may be the kiss that awakens the still-slumbering downtown, as more staff means more business for local shops.
Some Kannapolis residents do resent the tycoon who’s bought up the scenery, but most seem accepting, especially because the town has been in wealthy hands since J. W. Cannon of Cannon Mills started building it more than 100 years ago. “I get tired of hearing the comment that one man shouldn’t own the town,” says Larry Newton, who has lived in Kannapolis most of his life. “This town has always been owned by one person.” Having watched younger locals move away for lack of jobs, Newton welcomes the infusion of capital — and hope. “There needs to be something new,” he says.
Encouraging signs abound. Construction on the campus, stalled after the 2008 stock market crash (which cut Murdock’s fortune almost in half), has restarted. The research labs have begun hiring again. The nascent campus — still looking unfinished, without the lush trees and ivy that usually surround academia — is coming to life.
Murdock was married twice before he wed Gabriele and has been married twice since. (He has been through three divorces and one other bereavement.) When he talks about Gabriele, he still calls her “my wife,” though she has been gone now for 28 years, a decade longer than they were married. He still regrets the steaks, the whipped cream and the other rich foods he believes contributed to Gabriele’s illness. But rather than just endure his remorse, he says, “I decided I would do something about it.”
That something was grand. For the domed ceiling of the 311,000-square-foot David H. Murdock Core Laboratory, Murdock commissioned a mural of brightly hued fruits and vegetables, buttressed by an eagle. At Forty Six, a restaurant named for the number of human chromosomes, the walls bear his favorite sayings. Socrates: “Wisdom begins in wonder.” Murdock himself: “In order to do the impossible, you must see the invisible.”
For all his extravagant pronouncements, though, Murdock seems to see himself as a simple man who wants to help. “I didn’t need all my money, so I decided I’ll spend it for science,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m interested in keeping myself alive forever, and so I want to look after other people the same way I look after myself.”
Jessica Wapner is a freelance science writer. Her first book, The Philadelphia Chromosome, comes out in May.