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These NIH centers are led by Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, and Susan Sumner, PhD, at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Three researchers part of these centers hold primary appointments with the UNC School of Medicine — Steven Cotten, PhD, Tom Keyserling, MD, MPH, and John Batsis, MD.

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. UNC Gillings announced this news today.

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.

Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Nutrition and Medicine at the Gillings School and the UNC School of Medicine, 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.”

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 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.

The UNC Department of Nutrition is a join department between UNC Gillings and the UNC School of Medicine. UNC Gillings researchers are leading the centers and projects, which will include three faculty with primary appointments at the UNC School of Medicine:

  • Steven Cotten, PhD, associate professor in the UNC Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine and Director of Clinical Assays at the McLendon Laboratory at the UNC Medical Center;
  • Tom Keyserling, MD, MPH, professor of medicine in the Division of General Medicine and Clinical Epidemiology;
  • John Batsis, MD, associate professor of medicine in the division of geriatric medicine, with a joint appointment at UNC Gillings.