Faculty additions enhance research effort at Plants for Human Health Institute

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 6, 2016

KANNAPOLIS – Seating at weekly staff meetings is available on a first-come basis at the Plants for Human Health Institute  (PHHI), and recently it’s become a standing room only situation for latecomers.

“It’s a great problem to have,” says Dr. Mary Ann Lila, director of the institute. The N.C. State building at the N.C. Research Campus opened in 2008 at the onset of the economic recession. Though it has taken longer than anticipated, the research facility is now nearing capacity, opening three new labs in August, for the addition of three principal investigators: Dr. Debora Esposito, Dr. Mario Ferruzzi, and Dr. Giuseppe Valacchi.

These faculty join N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) as part of the institute, which is located at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. While the institute includes faculty from several departments within CALS, Esposito and Valacchi are the first faculty at the institute to join the Department of Animal Science. Both specialize in regenerative medicine, an area of research that includes wound healing. Ferruzzi is a member of the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, focusing on translational nutrition — translating the emerging science in the area of nutrition through improved dietary guidance, enhanced food products, or refined processing techniques.

“It is exhilarating to realize the wealth of new ideas, energies, and project strategies that each of these new faculty members bring to our team,” said Lila. “With our newly expanded research portfolio in regenerative medicine and translational nutrition, we are well positioned to tackle a wide range of compelling needs related to human health and our food system.”

Esposito joins the institute as an assistant professor. Her primary scientific interests are biological chemistry and discovery of bioactive molecules in the area of inflammation and skin care. Her lab will focus on application of plant-based bioactives to three interconnected research areas: inflammation and tissue regeneration as it applies to wound healing and skin care, cell-based biological screening and muscle aging and repair.

Esposito previously worked for the institute as the director of the Cell Culture Facility, but most recently held the position of senior research scientist at Dole Nutrition Institute — NCRC. A native of Brazil, Esposito received her bachelor’s in chemistry from Federal University of Vicosa, Brazil. She earned her professional degrees at Rutgers University, N.J.: a masters in drug discovery and development and a doctorate in cell molecular plant biology.

Valacchi comes to institute as an associate professor from the University of Ferrara, in Ferrara, Italy. His research focuses on epithelial wound healing, evaluating the effect of oxidative stress on organs such as the skin and lungs. His research has looked at exogenous sources of oxidative stress including ozone, cigarette smoke and other particles. He will be evaluating new topical applications, derived from natural compounds, which can improve the rate of wound healing and tissue regeneration. Valacchi says, “I am truly honored to be part of this amazing team. PHHI is a perfect combination of innovation, basic sciences and high standards of research.”

Valacchi obtained his bachelor’s in physiopathology and his doctorate in cellular physiology and neuroimmunophysiology at the University of Siena in Siena, Italy.  He has also worked at the University of California at Berkeley, University of California at Davis, and since 2008, he has been an adjunct professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, South Korea. Valacchi is a frequent international speaker and author of more than 160 peer-reviewed publications, 15 book chapters and one book, “Oxidants in Biology.”

Ferruzzi joins the institute as a tenured professor in translational nutrition. His research interests focus on two areas: provitamin A carotenoid and phenolics. He looks at the role of the food matrix in delivery of micronutrients and phytochemicals. His lab explores the interactions between plant phytochemicals and macronutrients (proteins and carbohydrates) and their impact on product quality and health promoting properties in humans.

Ferruzzi comes to N.C. State from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., where he spent 12 years. He earned a bachelor’s in chemistry from Duke University, Durham, and a master’s and doctorate in food science and nutrition from The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. Prior to joining academia, he was a research and development scientist for Nestlé.

“The new faculty members each bring complementary research approaches, and have already started to engage in collaborative projects with each other as well as with our established faculty at the Institute,” says Lila.

As the three faculty set up their labs, they expect to hire up to 12 additional lab staff. PHHI currently employs 63 full-time and part-time research, extension and administrative team members and are presently hosting seven visiting international scholars.