The first panel session of the UNC Charlotte Life Sciences Conference, Research: The Beginning, reinforced that the North Carolina Research Campus’ (NCRC) impact begins at the bench.
Allan Brown, PhD, applied molecular geneticist and assistant professor at the North Carolina State University Plants for Human Health Institute, started off the discussion, which was moderated by Benjamin Machon, business development officer for the David H. Murdock Research Institute (DHMRI). Brown, who is a lead scientist in the mapping of the blueberry genome, also researches a variety of fruits and vegetables.
“Anyone who knows me,” Brown said, “knows that broccoli is my first and true love. One of the reasons is that there is a vast array of compounds that are present in broccoli that have either realized or (potential) health benefits.”
Broccoli, Brown explained, contains the compound sulforaphane, which is a proven anticarcinogen, and a host of other helpful compounds like indole 3 carbonols, carotenoids, flavonoids, quercetin and vitamins E, K and C. In fact, broccoli has almost as much quercetin as an apple and vitamin C as an orange. “The problem,” he said, “is that not all broccoli is created the same.”
Variations in location, soil fertility, farming factors and other conditions create anywhere from a four to 10-fold difference in any of the compounds broccoli contains. Long-term, Brown is working to develop a variety of broccoli with stable levels of compounds so that consumers will receive all of the health benefits they expect when eating broccoli. He’s also working on isogenic broccoli and tomatoes for use in medical studies that differ only in the production of a single compound.
“If you think about plants being variable consider how variable people are,” remarked Andrew Swick, PhD, associate professor and director of Obesity and Eating Disorders Research at the UNC Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute. Swick studies how food is sensed by the gut and how intestinal metabolism regulates appetite. His goal is to understand the links between them in order to develop interventions to help people lose weight and maintain weight loss.
Swick’s research has led to breakthroughs in the understanding of the role of lipid metabolism in the intestine and obesity and weight loss. He also studies energy expenditure in relationship to food intake and weight loss using a metabolic chamber and, he explained, is looking at different types of foods and phytochemicals and their effect on energy expenditure and weight loss.
Wei Jia, PhD, co-director of the UNCG Center for Translational Biomedical Research, described the research focus of his organization as the “metabolic interaction between the gut and liver and the implications in metabolic disorders such as cancer.” Jia and his research team in collaboration with the NCRC’s David H. Murdock Research Institute (DHMRI) and cancer research centers like MD Anderson in Texas in the City of Hope Cancer Center in California are applying technologies like mass spectrometry and NMR to establish metabolic profiles that illuminate metabolic pathways and metabolic markers for diseases like colorectal cancer. Through studying the metabolic profiles of patients in China and the United States with colorectal cancer (CRC) against a control group of healthy patients, Jia was able to use the difference in metabolic profiles to develop a statistical model.
“A model used to predict who is a CRC patient and who is not,” Jia explained. “Statistically, (it is) a fairly good model at determining who is the CRC patient using only three metabolite markers. By the same token, urinary metabolite markers can predict who is going to be a cancer patient and who is not.” Jia’s metabolic profiles and statistical models can also be used to determine CRC recurrence and five-year survival rates.