Nutrition Research Feeds Charlotte, NC's Life Sciences Vitality

Life sciences are the heartbeat of Charlotte, where thousands of scientists are working to improve the quality of life in North Carolina and beyond. Anchored by major healthcare providers such as Carolinas HealthCare System, the region has built an industry sector that employs more than 10,000 people.

Betsy Williams
On Sunday, August 19, 2012 - 05:29
Charlotte, NC

The pulse of life sciences innovation is quickening in Charlotte USA, where thousands of researchers are bringing new breakthroughs to market.

The life sciences sector employs more than 10,000 people in the area, and includes the largest medical device manufacturing concentration in the Carolinas. Anchored by major health-care providers, such as the Carolinas HealthCare System and Presbyterian Healthcare, a growing cluster of newly built hospitals and specialty clinics serves the region and hosts dozens of clinical trials each year.

Aiding the cause of life sciences enterprise are organizations such as the Greater Charlotte Office of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which provides a range of services, from commercialization expertise to workforce programs to grant and research resources that support the industry.

North Carolina Research Campus

Take a 30-minute drive from downtown Charlotte and you’ll find the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, a 350-acre, life science research hub.

The private-public venture was created to foster collaboration and advancements in biotechnology, nutrition and health, and when it is fully built out, it is expected to employ some 5,000 researchers and support staff. Cornerstones are university research teams from eight North Carolina universities including Duke University,

UNC Charlotte

In addition to facilities in a $35 million, 75,000-square-foot building housing the bioinformatics and genomics program at UNC Charlotte, the university’s Bioinformatics Research Center also maintains laboratory space at the NCRC.

Center researchers work on computational technologies that are applied to complex biological problems. Computers analyze and integrate biological and genetic information that can then be applied to gene-based drug discovery and development. 

“Our NCRC presence allows us to have office space, as well as specialized equipment,” says Larry Mays, Ph.D., the center’s director.

Located in a neighboring 40,000-square-foot biorepository is LabCorp, which stores human biological samples for academic centers, research organizations, health-care providers and biotechnology companies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Center at the NCRC is one of only seven locations operated by the USDA nationwide to use biotechnology to help fight obesity, diabetes and cancer. At the center, the first of its kind in the Southeast, USDA scientists collaborate with university researchers at the campus to study nutrition and agriculture at the molecular level, leading to new discoveries and innovations.

Food for Thought

Food safety and nutrition advances are critical to the NCRC’s mission, with companies developing healthier, sustainable foods. Teams at North Carolina State University's Plants for Human Health Institute, for example,  are busy identifying and isolating compounds in fruits and vegetables with health-promoting and disease-fighting properties.

Their work recently earned the institute a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health and a $100,000 grant from Grand Challenges Explorations, a humanitarian research program from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The institute is now working with Zambian officials to capture mangoes in a shelf stable form year round.

“University-level research can’t be kept in an ivory tower,” says Mary Ann Lila, Ph.D., director of the Plants for Human Health Institute. “You can’t make the best possible discoveries in a lab unless you can translate it to the public’s good.”

Another campus partner is the Dole Nutrition Research Lab, which measures the levels of natural compounds in Dole Foods products and provides analytical support to various Dole divisions.

Director Nicholas Gillitt, Ph.D., says recent accomplishments include the launch of a new Chia seed product line and an investigation into bananas as an energy source. His study compared banana consumption against that of a carbohydrate matched sports drink in cyclists, and found matched performance times and higher antioxidant capacity in the blood of the banana test groups.

“Everybody sees athletes consuming bananas at sports events, but there is no solid science that says why they should,” Gillitt says. “We, as a banana company, wanted to produce that science and have now done so.”



Betsy Williams has extensive experience in economic development and advocating for businesses of all sizes.