Leading nutrition expert comes to N.C. Research Campus

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 15, 2009

By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó A leading nutrition expert with projects underway across the globe has joined the UNC Nutrition Research Institute at the N.C. Research Campus.
Dr. Sangita Sharma looks at what might cause cancer, heart disease and diabetes in different ethnic groups, then introduces programs within the communities to cut their risk of disease.
She pioneered ways to measure the nutritional intake of previously unstudied populations in some of the most remote regions on earth.
“She is one of the world’s experts on what people eat and how to measure it,” said Dr. Steven Zeisel, executive director of the Nutrition Research Institute.
Sharma’s research expertise fills a niche at the institute in Kannapolis, Zeisel said.
“For the NRI, it is important that we measure food intake as accurately as we measure gene mistakes, and Dr. Sharma gives us the skills needed to do that,” he said.
Sharma has about 15 projects underway in Brazil, Barbados, Alaska, the Canadian Arctic and the lower United States. She left the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii last month after eight years to come to Kannapolis, attracted by research opportunities at the burgeoning $1.5 billion biotechnology complex.
“I like to be a part of something that is exciting and a big adventure,” Sharma said. “To be in at the ground level with something as it’s growing is really phenomenal.”
Campus founder David Murdock, the billionaire owner of Dole Food Co., opened the first three buildings in Kannapolis last fall.
Sharma said she hopes to establish research projects in Kannapolis, working with different ethnic groups to improve nutrition and lower risk factors for disease.
“I’m interested in the short future in doing something with children,” she said.
Last week, Sharma brought a dozen staff members from across the globe to Kannapolis for five days of collaboration.
Dr. Tony Brunetti and Lindsay Beck had just spent a month living in total darkness in the Canadian Arctic, working with several small communities to improve their health through diet and exercise.
After working alone in such isolated locations, coming to the N.C. Research Campus was “energizing,” Brunetti said.
“I’m fascinated that the whole thing is focused around nutrition,” he said.
Brunetti and Beck serve as program managers for Healthy Foods North, Sharma’s effort to increase physical activity, encourage the use of traditional foods and teach people how to shop for healthy store-bought foods in the Northwest Territories. The American Diabetes Association funds Healthy Foods North.
Beck, a Northerner who grew up in Yellowknife, started working for Healthy Foods North a few months ago.
“I love it,” she said. “Working with people in the community, you see real change. It’s very rewarding.”
She has seen community members make healthier choices, exercise more and seek medical care for chronic diseases like diabetes.
“There is a huge educational component,” she said.
Sharma’s research projects include an evaluation phase, so managers like Beck and Brunetti can determine if their efforts to lower risk factors for chronic disease in native populations have worked.
Ethnic groups like the Inuit in the Arctic, Pacific Islanders in Polynesia and American Indians in the United States have some of the highest rates of chronic disease in the world because of the foods they eat.
“Many of these people changed from a healthy traditional dietólow fat, high fiber, low sugaróto a new, fast food diet very quickly,” said Dr. Joel Gittelsohn of the Center for Human Nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Gittelsohn and Sharmalead an effort called Healthy Stores, which encourages grocery stores, convenience stores and even gas stations near Apache, Navaho and other ethnic populations to stock healthier items, and teaches people to purchase them.
Gittelsohn, who visited the N.C. Research Campus for the first time last week, said a population’s distance from a supermarket with fresh produce is directly related to chronic disease rates, especially if the people are poor and lack transportation.
These groups “are deserving of special targeting,” he said.
Sharma’s research in ethnicity and nutrition has taken her all over the world. She has lived in Indonesia, Cameroon, Jamaica and Nepal.
She returns to her project sites often to meet with the people she’s studying. She flew to Trinidad last week and soon will return to the Arctic.
Sharma will bring several staffers with her to work at the Research Campus and plans to hire several more. Her team agrees that people in Kannapolis are kind and helpful, she said.
“All my international staff and visitors remarked on this aspect, and that they are very excited to move here and be part of the community,” she said.
After arriving, Sharma discovered that she has plenty of warm-weather clothes for Hawaii and lots of gear for frigid temperatures in the Arctic, but not much in between.
“I had to go shopping,” she said.
At the UNC Nutrition Research Institute, Sharma will continue her research into how nutrients interact with genes, especially the genes that cause cancer.
She will hold an appointment as associate professor in the University of North Carolina’s Department of Nutrition in Chapel Hill.
Sharma earned her Ph.D. in nutritional epidemiology from the University of Manchester Medical School in England.
The Nutrition Research Institute is part of UNC’s School of Public Health. The institute will use genomic and metabolomic methods that are only now available to focus on nutritional individuality ó why people’s metabolisms differ and why they have different needs for nutrients.