January 31, 2022

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will play a large part in a new National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that plans to advance precision nutrition.

UNC received two of 14 awards— totaling $170 million over five years, pending availability of funds — that the NIH Common Fund awarded as part of Nutrition for Precision Health, powered by the All of Us Research Program (NPH).

Understanding how people differ in both their metabolism and their bodily response to what they eat and drink is critical to tailoring diets for an individual’s optimal health and providing personalized intervention strategies for preventing and delaying the onset of chronic and progressive diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia and cancer.

To that end, researchers at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health will direct both a $13 million NPH Clinical Center (one of six across the United States) and a $19 million Metabolomics and Clinical Assay Center.

The overall goal of NPH is to develop algorithms that predict individual responses to food and dietary patterns. The program will build on recent advances in biomedical science, including artificial intelligence, microbiome research, and the infrastructure and diverse participant group of the All of Us Research Program. These advances provide unprecedented opportunities to generate new data offering insight into personalized (also called precision) nutrition.

“We know that nutrition, just like medicine, isn’t one-size-fits-all,” said Holly Nicastro, PhD, a coordinator with the NPH. “[This study] will take into account an individual’s genetics, gut microbes, and other lifestyle, biological, environmental or social factors to help each individual develop eating recommendations that improve overall health.”

Dr. Elizabeth Mayer-Davis

Dr. Elizabeth Mayer-Davis

Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Nutrition and Medicine at the Gillings School, is the principal investigator for the Clinical Center. She also serves as chair of the Gillings Department of Nutrition and directs UNC’s Nutrition Obesity Research Center.

“Our center will first establish an opportunity for enrollment in the All of Us Research Program, and then we will enroll more than 2,000 participants for the NPH,” Mayer-Davis said. “About 500 also will participate in what’s called a ‘controlled feeding study,’ with all food and beverages provided for six weeks. That will help us to learn how unique people respond to three different diets. Of the 2,000 NPH participants, we will see about 75% from the Chapel Hill (urban) area and 25% from the Kannapolis, North Carolina, area, which is rural. We are excited about this — across our two locations we will be able to better represent the state’s population.”

Dr. Susan Sumner

Dr. Susan Sumner

Susan Sumner, PhD, is the principal investigator for the Metabolomics and Clinical Assay Center (MCAC). She is a professor in the Gillings School’s Department of Nutrition and at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute, where she directs the Metabolomics and Exposome Laboratory.

Under Sumner’s leadership, the MCAC will provide certified clinical assays and acquire and process high quality metabolomics data, which measures tens of thousands of compounds in biospecimens such as blood, urine, stool or saliva. Metabolomics provides a more comprehensive view of an individual’s health and wellness than is achievable with the traditional clinical chemistry measurements employed today.

“The NPH MCAC will discover biomarkers related to dietary intake and determine their biological relationships to states of health and wellness,” Sumner said. “It also will provide insights into how individuals respond differently to the same dietary intervention — and how that is related to health and wellness. This approach is important to the development of personalized nutritional intervention strategies.”

The NPH awardees will spend 2022 planning before moving into clinical trials. The findings gathered over the full five years of the program will be made publicly available to registered researchers through a free database as part of the NIH’s All of Us research effort.

All of Us and Nutrition for Precision Health, powered by the All of Us Research Program, are service marks of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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