As written for Cabarrus Magazine.
Slavko Komarnytsky, PhD, and Debora Esposito, PhD, MBS, are passionate about each other, their one year-old daughter Sofia, and promoting good health through their research at the NC State Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) on the NC Research Campus.
Komarnytsky specializes in pharmacogenomics and drug discovery in the areas of metabolic, inflammatory, and infective diseases. He studies plant compounds that can lower blood sugar, reduce inflammation, and suppress appetite. He believes that 80 percent of chronic diseases could be avoided by changes in lifestyle, particularly smoking and diet.
“We are trying to find the unique combinations of fruits and vegetables which will have a drug-like effect on your body, personalized to your type and genome,” he said. “If you are willing to modify your diet, you might be able to control conditions like obesity and diabetes with specific combinations of fruits and vegetables.”
Komarnytsky also directs LifeHabitat Mobile Discovery program that allows students in North Carolina and partner universities in the US and internationally to participate in research for new, natural antibiotics.
Esposito directs the PHHI Cell Culture and Phenotyping Core Facility and researches a group of plant hormones called brassinosteroids found in high levels in kale, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and other members of the Brassica plant family. She conducts studies in animal models to determine if the brassinosteroids delay sarcopenia or muscle loss due to aging.
“We are working on what delays the aging process in people,” Esposito said. “One of the things I discovered with this research is that brassinosteriods increases the amount of muscle mass.”
Esposito’s family and the people of Caratinga, Minas Gerais, Brazil where she grew up inspired her interest in aging. People there commonly surpassed 100. Her grandfather lived to 106.
“My grandfather when he died, he was still healthy, living on his own and taking care of himself,” Esposito recalled. “He always rode a horse or walked or swam. That got me interested in understanding lifestyle factors, especially dietary choices that make people live longer and stay healthy.”
Komarnytsky is originally from a community of Boyko people in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine. When he was seven, his classmates dubbed him most likely to become a professor. He laughs that he had “no choice” about his profession after that.
His interest in plant research came from the realization that although the Ukrainian diet is relatively high in fat, the population has fairly low levels of obesity and cardiovascular disease. He theorizes that is due to fresh produce available at the town market and a tradition of home cooking.
“We are passionate about identifying what phytochemicals and in what combinations have particularly strong impact on your metabolism, muscle mass, or inflammation,” Komarnytsky explained. “Then we work with breeders to develop better varieties of fruits and vegetables with higher amounts of these compounds, and we work with our industry partners so they can develop healthy and beneficial foods.”
For more information, visit the NCSU Plants for Human Health Institute.