From the National Plant Institute for Human Health
CANAPOLIS – In 2019, Dontae Jimmie attended a “children’s science camp” at the Yukon Fish Camp in Alaska, led by Dr. Mary Ann Lila, a professor at North Carolina State University, and Dr. Kriya Dunlap, an associate professor at University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
Jimmy, who now grows up in high school, lives in the village of Northway, Alaska, population 338. Last week, Jimmy, along with five other Alaska Native students, accompanied by Dr. Dunlap, traveled more than 4,000 miles to Canapolis, North Carolina. (population nearly 50,000) for other educational enrichment; the one organized by Dr. Lila at the Institute of Human Health (PHHI) of the National University of North Carolina.
Scientific activity in action
At the fish camp, students collected biological specimens (samples of wild plants from Alaska) from the area to conduct analyzes for biodetection “Screens to Nature”. One of the goals was to recognize the value of their natural resources and the potential for as yet unidentified health applications. The experiments are designed to be conducted in the field without the need for high-tech equipment. The children ran along the river bank and conducted their scientific experiments for two days on a folding table under a tent.
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The opportunity to visit PHHI at the North Carolina Research Campus offers a chance to experience the high-tech side of science. Students put on their lab coats and gather in pairs on shiny black lab benches to practice micropipetting, perform a simulated COVID PCR test, prepare gel electrophoresis, and use a refractometer to assess fruit quality. They also replicated the biodetection kits in a controlled environment and discussed the challenges and limitations of field experiments. Of course, in the lab, however, they did not have access to the variety of biological samples that were available in Alaska.
Laura Ekada of Nulato, Alaska, is a student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and studied organic chemistry with Dr. Dunlap last year. Her conclusion from the experience is exactly what Lila and Dunlap hoped to achieve. Ekada says: “I was presented in a facility where I had to see science in action, making it more plausible to me. I see myself here. ”
Combining research and promotion
It is not uncommon for research grants to include a promotion component. In this case, the USDA grant, Back to the River: The Science Behind Alaska’s Traditional Lifestyle, aims to assess the phytochemical activity of native Alaska blueberries and other wild native tundra plants. Lila said: “Our goal in this scholarship was to highlight to students the exceptional health properties of their wild plants, which are already well established in Alaska’s traditional ecological knowledge. We combined bioassays to reveal plant health properties with research on sled dogs, which are a common feature of Alaskan life and can serve as a guardian of human health. This means that sled dogs are a great model for mimicking human health responses to eating Alaska’s native plant resources, especially in combination with intense exercise.
This range of students provided an opportunity to demonstrate how Alaska’s local resources can provide value to people outside the local population if we can capture their bioactivity in food or dog treats. In addition to laboratory research, the group toured the NC Food Innovation lab and met with food scientists to learn how resources can be transformed into practical, nutritious ingredients. The students met with professors who have used berries in clinical trials and in product development, and met with partners from local industry who are interested in expanding their research to create new products.
Lila and Dunlap have been working together for several years on this grant to evaluate the effect of eating blueberries in Alaska on inflammation in sled dogs. Dunlap’s father has competed with sled dogs professionally, so she has extensive knowledge and experience with their training regimen and their physiology. Her career path led her to biochemistry, where her research partly included examining the effects of phytochemicals on native plants in Alaska, such as Vaccinium uliginosum or blueberry, on human (and animal) health.
Lila explains that while sled dogs may seem like an unusual preclinical choice for assessing health effects, their specific breed characteristics, controlled diet and controlled exercise allow for better observations of dietary intervention. In this particular research project, the dogs were fed wild cranberries from Alaska in addition to their usual grains. After an exercise period, a blood sample was taken for testing for biomarkers of inflammation. The hypothesis is that the phytochemicals in blueberries will reduce inflammation and provide immune protection after exercise. Animals (and humans) are most vulnerable to viral infections after intense exercise, and a simple intervention such as dietary berries can boost an athlete’s immunity.
As the study continues, Lila and Dunlap hope to involve more students and students to work on specific aspects of the project. Their excitement from their research inspires students for career opportunities and highlights the value of their local fruits and the value of their health benefits.