Ashley Dunham

Kannapolis’ North Carolina Research Campus foresees growth

November 24, 2014

Monday, Nov. 24, 2014

By: Lisa Thornton, Charlotte Observer

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By the time they celebrate the North Carolina Research Campus’ seventh anniversary next year, leaders say, 10 buildings will have been erected on campus, and another two nearby.

The North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis celebrated its sixth anniversary earlier this month with a public luncheon, tours and a scientist-led panel that highlighted research projects under way.

The event was an opportunity, organizers said, to showcase the biotechnology hub’s achievements – economically and through its scientific advancements in nutrition – which have gone hand-in-hand in measuring the research center’s success.

Since its inception in 2008, the Research Campus’ business model has been to harness scientific innovation as an economic driver to attract companies and increase employment, much like Research Triangle Park has in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill.

“We’re recreating it (RTP) here, but instead of pharmaceuticals, it’s around areas that have to do with the field of nutrition and obesity,” said Dr. Steven Zeisel, director of the UNC Nutrition Research Institute on the campus.

Expansion possibilities

In the past six years, several companies that do business nationally, and some internationally, have taken an interest in the Research Campus, which employs nearly 1,000 people.

Dole Foods – owned by David Murdock, who founded the campus – and General Mills have set up research facilities on the campus.

Others, including Nestlé and Hershey, have contracted scientists to conduct research specifically catered to their interests.

Along with food corporations, supporting companies including Sensory Spectrum’s N.C. Discovery Center, a product testing and consumer research firm, and LabCorp, a biorepository, have set up shop within walking distance of the main campus.

By the end of the year, DataChambers, an information technology firm, and Crown Bioscience U.S. Research Center, which will focus on diabetes-related treatments, will join the ranks.

At the luncheon, Clyde Higgs, vice president of business development at Castle & Cooke Inc., which owns the research campus in Kannapolis, hinted that it is likely to expand further next year.

“I think you’ll see, maybe in the next several months, that we hope to make an announcement about a company or companies that will establish a footprint in Kannapolis because of the P2EP program,” he said.

P2EP (Plant Pathways Elucidation Project) is a STEM initiative that focuses on the science of plant pathways and how they can be used to improve human health. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The scientific advancements that have attracted businesses to the community have caused ripples in research circles as well. Some of the studies performed in Kannapolis have led to changes in understanding that have affected human health today.

In Zeisel’s lab, scientists discovered that eliminating a little-understood nutrient from people’s diets caused their health to deteriorate.

As a result, the National Academy of Sciences now requires the recommended dietary allowance of the nutrient, called choline, to be listed on all box labels in grocery stores.

The MURDOCK study

Other research projects are likely to have multiple offshoots for many decades to come.

The MURDOCK Study, a long-term project organized by Duke University on the Kannapolis campus, tracks the health changes among nearly 11,000 participants in the community. Scientists involved plan to apply its findings to examine all aspects of several diseases.

Through that effort, they hope to find improved treatments or even ways to prevent the onset of various diseases altogether.

The MURDOCK Study will eventually track 50,000 participants. Ashley Dunham, community health leader for the study, said she hopes its research someday will prove as beneficial as the groundbreaking Framingham Heart Study.

The Framingham study has tracked 5,000 men and women from the Massachusetts town since the 1940s to learn more about heart disease and stroke.

“The Framingham study taught as much of what we know today about heart disease,” Dunham said. “We’re trying to do something similar to that, but representing this community, which is much more representative of the United States.”

The MURDOCK Study has made efforts to include all genders, races and ethnicities among the people enrolled. (MURDOCK stands for “Measurement to Understand the Reclassification of Disease Of Cabarrus/Kannapolis.”)

Final vision

The final vision down the road for the Research Campus includes a park, hotel, retail stores, medical offices, a biotechnology education facility and more than 1 million square feet of office and laboratory space.

Zeisel and scientists like him believe they’ve only scratched the surface of what will be accomplished at the campus.

“Our job is to build a science base around the area of human nutrition, to train the students of the future who build the field here, to attract companies here and to create a new discipline, in terms of individualized nutrition, that we’ll become world-famous for.”

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