Prestigious new nutrition research center being established at UNC-CH with NIH funding

October 17, 1999

CHAPEL HILL - To help reduce the staggering toll of unnecessary illness and premature death associated with chronic disease and to understand better the links between such diseases and nutrition, the National Institutes of Health has selected the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as home of the nation's newest Clinical Nutrition Research Unit.

"Over the next five years, we will receive $4.7 million from NIH to establish and operate this unit," said Steven Zeisel MD, Ph.D., chair of nutrition at the UNC-CH schools of public health and medicine and director of the new center.

"Our central goals will be to enhance the speed at which new laboratory discoveries are used in population-based and clinical research, to make sure that the education of health professionals includes nutrition and to help people learn how they can improve their diets to stay healthy."

UNC-CH will be one of only seven such units in the United States. Others are at Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis and the universities of Chicago, Washington at Seattle, Southern Alabama and Colorado at Denver.

"Although the United States is thought to have one of the best health care systems in the world, in terms of both dollars and in human costs we are overburdened with the expense of chronic diseases," Zeisel said. "About 90 million Americans suffer with a chronic disease. As people age, the patterns of nutritional intake play a significant role in the onset and progression of these diseases: five of the 10 leading causes of death have a strong relationship to poor diet."

Total estimated costs for chronic diseases in 1990 in this country were $659 billion with $435 billion in direct costs and $234 billion in indirect costs, he said. Obesity, for example, contributes significantly to many other chronic diseases such as diabetes mellitus, heart disease and certain cancers and has been estimated to result in $45.8 billion in preventable health-care costs.

"Today, obesity is a deadly but under-appreciated epidemic that is sweeping the United States," Zeisel said. "Almost a third of our population is overweight, and the importance of disease prevention by improving nutrition is becoming increasingly clear."

One unit program, or "core," headed by Dr. Lenore Arab, professor of nutrition and epidemiology, will enable scientists to develop better epidemiological studies. Many of those projects will use new or previously identified "markers" -- biological signs of possible illness or health that can be measured in large groups.

Dr. Melinda Beck, associate professor of pediatrics, will head a molecular biology and nutritional biochemistry core. Dr. Marci K. Campbell, assistant professor of nutrition, will direct the nutrition "intervention" core, which will develop ways of getting the U.S. public to improve its eating habits.

Zeisel said the new unit also will sponsor an enrichment program of seminars for medical student education, community outreach and public education.

"Five promising young scientists will be funded for projects that will help them develop the data they need to compete for larger grants," he said.

Those young investigators will be Drs. Miroslav Styblo, research assistant professor of pediatrics and nutrition, Lori Carter-Edwards, research assistant professor of epidemiology and health behavior and health education; Myron E. Hinsdale, clinical instructor in pathology and laboratory medicine; Anna Maria Siega-Riz, assistant professor of maternal and child health and nutrition; and Robert M. Aris, assistant professor of medicine.

Styblo will study the trace nutrient selenium and how it interacts with arsenic poisoning, and Carter-Edwards will study interactions among black family members concerning diet and blood pressure. Hinsdale will investigate genetically created animal models for cardiovascular disease.

Siega-Riz will explore glucose intolerance during pregnancy in large groups. Vitamin D therapy for bone disease and cystic fibrosis will be the focus of Aris' work.

"This new NIH support and designation recognizes and confirms the world-class stature of nutrition studies in public health and medicine at the university," Zeisel said. "It will create significant new opportunities for us to pursue cutting-edge human nutrition research across several disciplines and, we hope, improve human health.

"Only a few years ago, less than $2 billion was spent on dietary supplements in this country, and this year the market will be more than $18 billion," he said. "Because this is a large portion of what we spend on health, that's another good reason both for the interest in nutrition and for meaningful research on how nutrients can maintain health."

UNC-CH's nutrition department now attracts about $9 million in annual research support.
Note: Zeisel can be reached at 919-966-7218 or 919-932-9080 (h). E-mail:

School of Public Health Contact: Lisa Katz, 919-966-8498. E-mail:

Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596. E-mail:

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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