Research Campus scientist targets African-American health issues

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 14, 2011

KANNAPOLIS — A newly hired scientist at the N.C. Research Campus is working to better understand health risks of African-Americans based on their genes and DNA.
Dr. Fatimah L.C. Jackson, a prominent anthropologist, has joined the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Nutrition Research Institute.
In Kannapolis, Jackson will continue developing a tool called “ethnogenetic layering,” used to better understand how different populations are susceptible to disease. Using this tool, she said she hopes to identify immediate and individual intervention strategies to address health disparities among African-Americans.
Jackson has worked among diverse African and African-American groups in Liberia, Cameroon, Egypt, Sudan, Tanzania and Rwanda.
According to Jackson, most researchers have approached the African-American community as a monolith, treating a diverse population as if it were uniform and then inadvertently selecting a subset to represent all African-Americans.
In fact, she said in a press release, African-Americans are derived from diverse areas of West and West Central Africa. Differing proportions of Africans from these regions were transported to America during the transatlantic slave trade.
This original diversity translates today into an African-American population that has different regional genetic ancestries, diverse cultural practices and sometimes different frequencies of certain health disparities.
As enslaved people from Africa were transported to the United States, they were settled regionally in ways that created a degree of substructure or stratification within African-American communities. Jackson’s tool taps into that historic subdivision to identify local cultural and biological risk factors for current health inequities.
For African-Americans, regional origin is significant for DNA inheritance and gene expression, which can mean susceptibility to certain diseases.
For example, there appears to be a higher susceptibility among eastern and central North Carolina populations to hypertension, or high blood pressure.
By focusing on the salt content of their diet, in combination with the discovery of salt-retaining genes in their bodies — which resemble the DNA of people coming from regions of Africa close to the equator — Jackson said she may be able to discover the original genetic and dietary sources of the hypertension, as well as develop interventions for better health.
In her research, Jackson wants to balance the technical aspects of genetic heritage with the cultural and environmental impacts.
“Foods, for instance, that are eaten by different segments of African-Americans may be metabolized somewhat differently,” she said. “I will explore how diets and genetic heritage contribute to those differences, some of which are traceable back to regional origin in Africa.”
This will provide clues to diseases, receptions of medicine and new intervention strategies. Ultimately, these intervention strategies may help mitigate certain health risks, including the increased risk of obesity, diabetes and some types of cancer in particular groups of African-Americans.
While conducting research in Africa, Jackson co-founded the first human DNA bank on the continent in Cameroon. The bank has archived more than 5,000 DNA samples, which will enable Jackson to use advanced technologies at the Research Campus in Kannapolis to explore differences between people with known environmental exposures to gene-influencing compounds.
“The studies of health disparities among African-Americans directly align to the NRI mission of individualized nutrition,” said Dr. Steven Zeisel, director of the UNC Nutrition Research Institute. “We are thrilled that Dr. Jackson has chosen to conduct her research with our team.”
The institute also welcomes newly hired postdoctoral research associates and lab staff, including:
• Dr. Sheau Ching Chai, a postdoctoral research associate and registered dietitian who previously has studied the role of dietary supplements in bone and cardiovascular health. In Kannapolis, she is extending her research to the area of functional foods and neuroscience.
She works in the lab of Dr. Carol Cheatham, who specializes in the effects of nutrition on pediatric brain development.
• Dr. Jie “Jacky” Zhu, who will study folate metabolism through biochemical, genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. He will support the NRI Nutrigenetics Laboratory, led by primary investigator Dr. Martin Kohlmeier, and will focus on leveraging recent genetic technology to translate DNA detail into practical clinical uses.
• Dr. Sarah King, who is studying choline metabolism in Zeisel’s lab. The goal of her current project is to understand how genes involved in choline metabolism and synthesis are regulated during brain development.
• Dr. Corinne Zeller-Knuth, a postdoctoral research associate who studies the regulation of certain gut peptides and how they affect control of body weight. She works with Dr. Andrew Swick, exploring how the digestive system senses food and impacts appetite and metabolism.
• Fuli “Tracey” He, a graduate student who supports the Niculescu lab, focusing on epigenetic influence on brain development, specifically aging of the brain. Her current work involves how blueberry polyphenol diets alter gene methylation and expression.
“We welcome the new members of our team, and expect this level of growth to continue,” Zeisel said. “The NRI is happy that we have the ability to be a positive influence in the economic development through our growth.
“Our increasing employment trend at the NRI is a clear indication of our solid foundation and growing success, and we are proud to be moving forward as an active member in the state and in this community.”