Plants for Human Health Institute’s newest faculty focuses on microbiome research

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, June 5, 2019

KANNAPOLIS – The interaction of the gut microbiome with human health is an emerging field in biology, nutrition and medicine. With the addition of Andrew Neilson Ph.D., NC State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI) plans to be at the forefront of understanding that interaction.

Neilson, an associate professor in the department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, plans to interface with interdisciplinary staff at PHHI. The employees of PHHI, all located at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis, are focused on the discovery of plant-based solutions to advance human health and prevent chronic disease. Their expertise spans six different academic departments within N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“I think the gut microbiome angle adds an important and very complementary piece to the puzzle of studying plants for human health,” says Neilson. He reiterates that scientists working in a silo do not bring about advancement in the same way that complementary research efforts can. He says, “I believe very strongly in research synergy: the outcome of our team efforts is much greater and more impactful than the sum of all our individual parts.”

One of those PHHI collaborators that Neilson has already found synergy with is Mario Ferruzzi Ph.D., who served as Neilson’s Ph.D. adviser at Purdue University in 2005. Ferruzzi, who joined PHHI in 2016, says, “It is great to see the positive energy Andrew adds to our already active group at the PHHI. He certainly brings a new dimension to our research enterprise that will allow us to tackle some of the more complex aspects of how plant bioactives provide health benefit through interactions with the microbiome.”

Neilson has already hired postdoctoral scholar Laura Griffin Ph.D., and plans to add a graduate student this fall. The lab will ultimately support two postdocs and up to six graduate students, depending on grant funding.

The overarching objectives of his research program are to study the interactions between the diet — specifically plant compounds known as phytochemicals — and the function, composition and metabolism of the gut microbiome. They will then determine how these interactions can be exploited to prevent or reduce the impact of chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Prior to joining PHHI, Neilson began his career in academia at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia, earning tenure in 2017. While at Virginia Tech, he cultivated collaborative relationships across departments and outside the university, including exploring opportunities for research efforts with Ferruzzi and PHHI scientist Colin Kay Ph.D.

Neilson says, “The group of researchers working here is a great group of really productive scientists and I felt like this was a great team to be part of. I think PHHI is positioned really well to make some great progress in advancing our ability to use plants to promote human health.”

The hiring of Neilson, brings the N.C. State faculty presence at the N.C. Research Campus to a total of 12. N.C. State is one of nine institutions of higher education with a presence at the nutrition-focused hub in Kannapolis.

N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute employs 79 full-time and part-time research, Extension and administrative team members and are presently hosting eight visiting international scholars.