Nutrition Research Institute: Helping the world get healthier, one person at the time
Scientific studies under way at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Research Institute (NRI), located on the North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC) in Kannapolis, show promise of a healthier future for children and adults based on new knowledge of highly individualized nutrient and metabolism requirements.
At the NRI, researchers are exploring nutritional individuality through nutrigenomics – how nutrition changes the way genes function and how genes change nutrient requirements – and metabolomics – the measurement of thousands of chemicals which make up personal metabolism.
NRI research is fast moving beyond traditional knowledge of nutrition, replacing an outdated one-size-fits-all approach with cutting-edge discoveries of individual differences in DNA and metabolism.
Armed with key information about individualized nutrition, physicians and other health care providers can help patients understand how diet and exercise impact health and diseases such as cancer, obesity and diabetes.
Strengthened associations between individualized nutrition, enhanced health and disease prevention have great potential to improve the lives of people worldwide.
Discoveries in the Zeisel lab
According to NRI Director Steven Zeisel, M.D., Ph.D., “The Zeisel research group at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute is developing the emerging science of nutrigenomics – the future basis for individualized nutrition. We discovered a new essential nutrient for humans (choline) which is important for liver, muscle and brain function. In addition, this nutrient helps stem cells multiply. The amount of choline you need to eat depends on your genes.”
“Our studies require us to use cutting edge new tools in genetics and metabolism as well as powerful microscopes and special stains that enable us to see inside of cells to discover how they work.”
In mouse studies in the Zeisel lab, research showed that choline – found in in foods like eggs, beef liver, wheat germ, and spinach- plays a critical role in a mother’s diet during pregnancy and is essential for the formation of nerve cells in the developing brain. Adding choline to a mother’s diet causes more new nerve cells to form in the developing retina of her offspring, a contributing factor for eye health.
Researchers also learned that the liver cannot remove fat and send it to the blood when diet is low in choline, perhaps a contributing factor to fatty liver disease. One in five people have fatty livers.
Dr. Zeisel led another research study that determined that a genetic variant called a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in the CHDH (choline dedrogenase) gene is related to decreased movement of human sperm. This SNP affects how straight a sperm can swim and how effective it is for fertilization. Five to 10 percent of men have this genetic aberration.
Mice that have a defect in the gene Chdh have poor swimming sperm, but supplementing their diet with the nutrient betaine improves sperm function. Fertility of men with the SNP in CHDH likewise may improve if they receive additional betaine.
“The study is exciting because this is the first time we realized that this nutritional pathway is important for sperm function, and we may have a nutrition-based solution for many men with infertility.”
Research into human metabolism
Located inside the UNC NRI building is the only metabolic chamber (whole room calorimeter) in the Carolinas. The chamber utilizes a designated air-handling system, air locks and measured air exchange to accurately measure (within +/-2 percent) individual energy expenditure over an extended (24-hour) period. NRI researchers are using the chamber to study how genes, nutrients and exercise affect metabolism.
Faculty member Karen Corbin, Ph.D., R.D., partnered with researchers from Appalachian State University to determine whether individuals continue to burn calories after strenuous exercise is stopped. The study included two separate 24-hour visits for 10 men (ages 22-23). They first studied the metabolic rate without vigorous exercise. During the second visit, participants rode a stationary bike under isocaloric conditions inside the metabolic chamber. The study found that 45 minutes of vigorous exercise increased metabolic rate up to 19 hours after the exercise ended. This represents 50 percent more calories burned than during the exercise period alone.
Studies utilizing the metabolic chamber have significant application for weight loss and weight management. Going forward, NRI scientists will focus on human metabolism and how it responds to other factors as well.
Exploring Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders in the U.S.
and around the world.
NRI faculty member Phillip May, Ph.D., is investigating the prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) in South Africa with a $5.3 million grant awarded this year by the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“The highest rates of FASD in the world have been found to occur in the South African towns that we are focusing on,” said Dr. May. “We think we can improve lives dramatically; there are just so many kids to work with there.”
An estimated 20 percent of the South African population is affected by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders that result from mothers drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Children with FASD exhibit symptoms such as poor coordination, speech and language delays, poor memory and hyperactivity.
As part of the study, Dr. May and his team hope to identify effective methods for early intervention in children to minimize their disabilities and to identify alcohol use in the prenatal period. The team will also collect data to determine the effect of prevention techniques and participatory research on risk factors and actual rates of FASD in the study communities.
“Improved understandings about the specific characteristics and patterns of FASD in these South African populations have broad implications for public health in most every human population.”
In a published scholarly paper, Dr. May concluded that cognitive and behavior skills in children with FASD are influenced by their mother’s overall physical health and socioeconomic status, not only by alcohol use. Dr. May’s research showed that proper nutrition, education and stimulation help children with FASD “grow and develop in a behavioral and social sense quite nicely.”
In 2011, Dr. May received an $8.9 million grant from the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to study FASD in the United States. That grant was the largest in the history of the NRI.
NRI scientists further nutrition education worldwide
NRI scientists are filling a significant void in nutrition education for students in medical schools throughout the United States and the world.
Dr. Zeisel and Martin Kohlmeier, M.D., have developed an online curriculum, “Nutrition in Medicine.” This free, interactive course covers topics such as the impact of diet on individual health; cancer nutrition; cardiovascular disease; nutrition for children; nutrition for senior adults; and dietary supplements. Students also learn how nutrition helps prevent disease.
Physicians want and need continuing education about nutrients and their associations with cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. In response, Dr. Zeisel and Dr. Kohlmeier created the online program, “Nutrition Education for Practicing Physicians.”
Dr. Kohlmeier noted: “About 25 percent of all U.S. medical students currently use our programs, and our programs are available through more than 150 universities worldwide.” Link to the curriculum: https://www.nutritioninmedicine.net/
What the future holds
Since its establishment in late 2008, NRI scientists have been awarded more than $26 million in grants and contracts from companies, foundations and the federal government.
At the NRI, this intellectual capital is fueling an economic engine to attract business opportunities and create new jobs for North Carolinians. The NRI is training a skilled biotechnology work force that will be in demand by life sciences and nutrition companies considering relocation to the Piedmont. In 2012, students from 17 universities, colleges and high schools participated in NRI internships. Some of these students now work at the NRI.