Not so long ago, Kannapolis, North Carolina was a town built around the manufacture of towels. Today, the old Cannon Textile Mill is home to a medical research campus seeking to integrate self-reported data and electronic health records with biobanked tissue samples and the latest ‘omics tools. Funded by real estate developer and Dole Foods owner David H. Murdock, the Kannapolis-based M.U.R.D.O.C.K. (for Measurement to Understand the Reclassification of Disease Of Cabarrus / Kannapolis) study has been called the “Framingham study of the molecular age” – a reference to the famed Massachusetts heart study begun in 1948.
Simon Gregory, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Duke and director of the Genomics Core at the Kannapolis campus, has devoted his last seven years working with MURDOCK investigators to study candidate genes related to cardiovascular disease, autism, and developmental disorders. But Gregory has a special interest in applying the resources in Kannapolis to understand multiple sclerosis (MS).
“Through our parallel studies, we hope to identify new genes or pathways that could become novel drug targets,” he said. “This may help prevent the initiation of the disease itself or at least slow its progression.”
That could mean better medicines for the approximately two million individuals already living with MS around the world. The ultimate hope is to find drugs that are more powerful at lower doses and for less than the $30,000 that patients today must pay yearly.
In the end, Gregory plans to enroll 1,000 individuals from the Kannapolis area who are living with MS, analyzing their genomes in multiple ways to seek out predictive biomarkers of disease progression.
The MURDOCK study as a whole has now enrolled 8,600 participants – on its way to the ambitious goal of 50,000 – who will be followed over the course of their lives. The effort has roused the support of the Kannapolis community and inspired new kinds of collaborations at the intersection of epidemiology, ‘omics, medicine and bioinformatics.
“The science is just too big for any one person to have all the good ideas or to do things alone,” Gregory said.