At the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, the North Carolina State University Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) and the Dole Nutrition Research Laboratory have collaborated to form a joint industry-academic postdoctoral fellowship, the first of its kind at the NCRC.
Postdoctoral positions are a common first career step for those who have just completed their doctoral programs. The positions can be one to five years in duration and are conducted under the mentorship and supervision of senior scientists. Most postdocs are geared toward academic research careers while a smaller percentage are industry sponsored. Less often, a postdoc combines both academia and industry.
The joint postdoc made sense for PHHI and Dole because the identification and characterization of phytochemicals is at the core of each of their research programs. Phytochemicals are bioactive compounds that occur naturally within fruits and vegetables and provide health benefits linked to the prevention of many diseases. PHHI utilizes the phytochemicals to develop enhanced varieties of produce that can be grown and marketed to bolster North Carolina’s agriculture. Similarly, Dole is identifying the phytochemical profile of its fruit and vegetable portfolio to understand and maximize the health benefits for consumers.
“Although we work in separate areas,” said Nicholas D. Gillitt, PhD, director of nutrition research for Dole, “our overall alignment is the same. We want to show the benefits of bioactives in fruits and vegetables.”
“We’re on very parallel paths,” agreed Mary Ann Lila, PhD, director of PHHI. “We’re looking at different crops, but we have very similar interests that make us a natural fit for partnerships and collaborative research. We both work to get products that are efficacious for human health out to the marketplace, and we want to work together toward that common goal.”
As a first step to mapping out a program of collaborative research, Gillitt and Lila decided to take a bold step. They created the jointly-funded postdoctoral position with dual expertise in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LCMS) to be, as Lila described, “a natural link” between the two labs.
The ideal candidate quickly emerged. Scott Neff, PhD, had just finished his PhD in fungal natural products at the University of Iowa. His background in the isolation and structural elucidation of fungal secondary metabolites made him the top candidate. He was hired by PHHI in June 2012 to fill the newly created postdoc position.
“This is a unique postdoc that is right up my alley and it also gives me the flavor of both industry and academia,” Neff said. “Currently, we are continuing to work out the fine details of getting various samples and performing different types of extractions. I’m excited about access to all of the state-of-the-art equipment here at the NCRC, all of which will provide more confidence in analyzing results.”
This state-of-the-art equipment is generations ahead of what Neff used at Iowa. These instruments include Dole’s 700 MHz NMR as well as analytic instrumentation in the PHHI labs that included high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and gas chromatography. Besides familiarizing himself with the instrumentation, Neff, in his first weeks on the job, organized his lab spaces and started his first projects. For Lila’s lab, he is assisting with research for the California Walnut Board characterizing the phytochemical make-up of the walnut and looking at all of its health protective compounds. He is also working with fruits like cranberries, blueberries, raspberries and mango for the Nutrasorb™ product.
Nutrasorb offers natural foods matrices developed by Lila in partnership with Rutgers University that reduce the phytochemical content of fruits and vegetables into flour. The flour, which can be from soy, wheat or other protein-rich, plant-based sources, provides a stable functional food product that can be added to other foods to deliver the nutrients of fruits and vegetables without the sugars and bulk. For developing countries or areas of the United States with limited access to fresh produce, the product can increase the nutritional value of foods and the overall health of people.
For Dole, Neff is profiling bananas using NMR and HPLC to identify new compounds. Since very little is known about the antioxidant profile of bananas, Neff’s work may contribute to the development of new Dole products. “The peels have a very high phenolic content compared to the flesh,” Gillitt said. “Even though people don’t eat the peel that doesn’t mean that the antioxidant and phytochemical compounds aren’t potentially healthful to humans. If we can identify what they are, find out how they vary with the ripening stages of bananas then maybe we can work out how to extract them and use them in a packaged food product as well as publish peer-reviewed articles in the area of NMR method development.”
As Lila and Gillitt finalize their first joint research projects, questions are already coming in from other NCRC corporate partners who are expressing an interest in forming additional industry-academic postdocs.
“This only works here because we are not territorial,” Lila said. “We have a person with a foot in both campus (and that) makes all of the difference in making collaborations real and making them flourish.”
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