Locals finding jobs with N.C. Research Campus

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 5, 2009

By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó Crystal Overcash says she’s proof that you don’t need a college degree to work at the N.C. Research Campus.
The Salisbury woman just took a job with Duke University as a clinical trials assistant in Kannapolis. She’ll help make history when the MURDOCK Study launches a massive registry next month.
Campus founder and Dole Food Co. owner David Murdock started the study, called the Measurement to Understand Reclassification of Disease of Cabarrus/Kannapolis, with a $35 million gift to Duke in 2007. The long-term medical research project will use genetic tools to better understand chronic diseases like arthritis and obesity.
Duke, which already had a staff of four working in Kannapolis, recently hired six additional employees including Overcash to enroll 50,000 Kannapolis and Cabarrus County residents in the registry. They will officially launch the effort in January and have four years to complete the task.
“I’m excited about all the potential to do good,” said Overcash, a certified pharmacy technician.
She started working at a pharmacy in Salisbury while in high school, moving from cashier to shift manager to pharmacy technician, and then took the national certification exam.
In Kannapolis, Overcash will conduct phone screenings in the MURDOCK Study office. She and the other new Duke hires will move into a new office in Cannon Village, hopefully by February, she said.
Duke has outgrown the renovated Dress Barn, where the study set up shop a year ago. The university will rent additional space from campus developer Castle & Cooke North Carolina until Murdock constructs a building for the school on the Research Campus. Two buildings for branches of seven public North Carolina universities opened in October.
Like Overcash, Leah Boulter lives in Salisbury and sees the MURDOCK Study as a chance to make a difference.
One of four clinical research coordinators for the study, Boulter will help oversee the enrollment process. A graduate of N.C. State University in biology, she has worked with clinical trials.
“We were treating the symptoms of disease,” she said. “But the MURDOCK Study will look for the cause of disease.”
David Steele will serve as the staff assistant for the new office. A Kannapolis native, Steele’s late father worked in the textile mill that eventually closed, making way for the $1.5 billion, 350-acre Research Campus.
“I knew I wanted to work here when I saw it going up,” said Steele, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Steele, Overcash and Boulter said they’re surprised to be working for a groundbreaking research project, especially in Kannapolis, a former mill village built around textile manufacturing.
And these Tar Heel and Wolfpack fans all said they are surprised to find themselves working for Duke.
“I will wear light blue on occasion,” said Steele.
Dr. Ashley Dunham of Salisbury, who has spent the past year preparing to launch the registry, said her team is ready.
“Every single one of them is really excited about being a part of this, about the way this could revolutionize medicine,” said Dunham, who oversees clinical operations for the study.
People who enroll in the registry are signing up for a general database, not a study of a particular disease, Dunham said. Those specific, targeted studies will begin later in 2009, she said.
The registry will provide a pool of 50,000 volunteers for researchers to call upon. Specific disease studies could include clinical trials, which test new drugs or other interventions, or cohort studies, which follow people at risk for disease for many years.
Participants must agree to be contacted at least once a year and can opt for four times a year if desired. Some enrollees will never do more than fill out an annual health questionnaire by mail, while others will become intimately involved with research.
The registry needs healthy as well as sick people, Dunham said.
Researchers could use samples from healthy people to identify markers that show if they are at risk for disease. Healthy subjects also will serve as control groups in clinical trials.
The study has chosen a variety of enrollment sites, including the Cabarrus Health Alliance in Kannapolis, the Community Free Clinic in Concord and several private practices in Concord, Kannapolis and Harrisburg.
Duke partnered with agencies that serve low-income and Latino patients to ensure that the registry reflects reality, Dunham said.
“We wanted to make sure that we reached the entire Cabarrus County population,” she said. “We have to go where the health care is delivered.”
Anyone who lives in Cabarrus County or Kannapolis, including the approximately 8,000 citizens who live in the Rowan County portion of the city, may enroll in the registry.
Patients with a doctor who is part of the MURDOCK Study may enroll in that office. Other people probably will enroll at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute on the N.C. Research Campus.
Medical offices and other locations like the YMCA and library soon will have brochures explaining how to enroll.
Enrollment, which will take 45 to 60 minutes, requires an appointment. Although people can’t make an appointment yet, they can call 1-877-673-2508 to get on the list, which already includes 500 names, or visit www.murdock-study.org and click on the link that says “Register for the MURDOCK Study here.”
“I’m very pleased with the progress on the registry,” Dunham said. “It was very important to go through this process to make sure we were doing it right, refining how we were going to enroll people and refining the information that we are going to collect.”
Before their appointment, participants will receive a packet in the mail. They will fill out a questionnaire and list their medications. At the appointment, they will go through an informed consent process with a staff member, who will draw their blood.
At current staffing levels, the MURDOCK Study can enroll 500 people per month.
“We want to get up to a point where we can enroll 1,000 people a month,” Dunham said. “We could have to double our staff.”
Once enrolled, participants remain anonymous. They will receive quarterly newsletters with updates on discoveries.
They may withdraw from the registry at any time, instructing Duke to destroy their samples. But Dunham hopes they won’t.
Researchers expect the MURDOCK Study to make major contributions to society and even “rewrite the textbook of medicine,” she said.
The MURDOCK Study, most similar to the Framingham Study, is expected to run for decades and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The study is already seeking money from new sources like the National Institutes of Health to fund the project when Murdock’s $35 million runs out in a few years.