UNC researchers studying metabolism, body fat in Kannapolis
By Emily Ford
This summer, someone will live in a 9-by-12-foot room at the N.C. Research Campus for 24 hours while instruments measure every breath she exhales and every bit of energy she expends.
Dr. Karen Corbin likely will be the first subject in the new $750,000 metabolic chamber at the University of North Carolina’s Nutrition Research Institute in Kannapolis. One of 11 in the country, the chamber will allow scientists to measure a subject’s metabolic rate to within 35 calories.
“This means we have the best tools available in the world to do this type of research,” said Corbin, clinical coordinator for the Nutrition Research Institute and a registered dietitian.
The chamber looks like a small hotel room with a bed, TV and toilet. Two large windows offer views of the control room and the outdoors, and curtains provide privacy.
In a vast arsenal of clinical assessment tools, the metabolic chamber makes the Nutrition Research Institute one of the most complete nutrition and obesity research laboratories in the country.
Scientists will use the chamber and other cutting-edge equipment to help answer questions that frustrate millions.
Why do some people lose weight while others can’t?
“Do some people burn calories at different rates than other people?” said Dr. Steven Zeisel, director of the Nutrition Research Institute. “Why do people burn more or less? Genes? Medication? The chamber can help us answer these questions.”
Zeisel and other scientists want to understand why people have different nutritional requirements and metabolisms, which could unlock the door to new treatments and even cures for disease.
But first, someone has to spend 24 hours in a small room.
“I’m really not looking forward to it,” Corbin joked.
Corbin was in Florida, searching online for job opportunities, when she came across the N.C. Research Campus, a $1.5 billion, 350-acre life sciences complex dedicated to human health and nutrition.
“They have every tool imaginable,” she said. “I set my sights on landing a job here.”
Two years later, she won the position.
Corbin coordinates all training, testing and maintenance of the clinical equipment. She helps UNC scientist Dr. Carol Cheatham research whether omega-3 fatty acids will make kids smarter, and soon Corbin will begin her own research on fatty liver disease.
Unlike other tools that measure metabolic rate for a few minutes, the metabolic chamber takes constant readings over a 24-hour period, taking into account everything a subject would do in a normal day.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has the only other chamber on the East Coast.
The Nutrition Research Institute has three other clinical research labs in Kannapolis.
– In the metabolic kitchen, scientists design and prepare meals with a defined nutritional composition, based on their research protocol. The kitchen hasn’t opened yet, but eventually study subjects will eat at the institute while they participate in research.
No ingredients are measured in the kitchen. Instead, everything is weighed.
Scientists studying certain nutrients will design their diets on computers, which are connected to scales in the kitchen to ensure exact preparation of the meal.
After subjects consume prescribed meals for a certain amount of time, scientists will retest them to see how their bodies changed.
Before serving the meals, researchers will taste their own food to see “whether people would be able to swallow it,” Corbin said.
– The body composition laboratory includes several tools to measure lean and fat body mass.
The Bod Pod, a $50,000 egg-shaped pod that opens to allow a subject to enter and sit inside, measures fat and metabolism.
The $100,000 DXA scanner measures fat and bone density as well, but the scanner also shows researchers exactly where fat is located throughout the body.
Fat in the center of the body around organs is more detrimental than fat elsewhere, Corbin said.
An ultrasound machine will aid Corbin’s research on fatty liver disease.
About three-fourths of obese people suffer from fatty liver disease, a major indicator of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic disorders.
Corbin will research genetic factors that might influence fatty liver and design and test nutritional interventions.
“It’s kind of a chicken-or-the-egg,” she said. “What came first, obesity or fatty liver?”
– A laboratory with a treadmill and stationary bike allows scientists to measure a subject’s metabolic rate at rest or during exercise.
Scientists who suspect a nutrient or medication might increase or decrease metabolism will test their theories here.
The Nutrition Research Institute employs 34 people, including five faculty members, Zeisel said.
Hiring has slowed during the state budget crisis, but eventually, Zeisel said he anticipates a total of 18 faculty members with a staff of more than 100 people.