Human Nutrition Research Lab

Today, I availed myself of a long-standing invitation from Jerry Combs, director of the United States Agriculture Department's Human Nutrition Research Laboratory in Grand Forks. Dr. Combs is a customer at the nursery and has frequently invited me to take a tour of his institution as I was adding up the pots of plants he and his wife purchased.

I got a grand tour. Quite a place. Well over one-hundred employees. The Grand Forks facility is one of six laboratories in the United States. This particular lab works on the effects of various nutrients on cancer, amongst many other things.

Originally the lab concentrated upon effect of trace elements like zinc, boron or iron in the diet. However, you don't put a lid on scientists who have ideas, so there are many things going on, including Dr. Combs' own research.

While at Cornell University, Dr. Combs discovered that selenium can lower risk for cancer. That discovery earned him appearances on CNN and other channels. He was attracted to North Dakota because it has some high selenium soils in the west. In fact, two slices of bread made from wheat taken from western North Dakota provide the amount of selenium prove to prevent cancer.

There were rats in the basement. Lots of rats. But they are treated well. The government has guidelines, as you can imagine. In fact, there are even rules that when you do surgery on a rat, you have to have a separate prep room, surgery room and recovery room. It sounds silly, but makes sense from a research perspective.

The rat labs are spotless. Cleaning is frequent. In fact, the rat rooms are kept pressurized with filtered air to make sure that no contamination gets in through the cracks. The rats are being fed one nutrient or another, or perhaps being deprived of some vitamin in an attempt to find out what the presence or lack of a particular compound does.

But it isn't all rats. Upstairs are geneticists who study the effect of genetics on how food effects us--as well as how food effects the playing out of our genetic patterns.

For example, doctors have long advised people who fear getting high blood pressure to avoid salt. Turns out, only 15% of the population has the genes which make the body react to salt by raising blood pressure. So, for 85% of the population, the advice to avoid salt is hogwash.

Dr. Combs envisions a day not so far in the future when doctors will take a drop of your blood and by next Tuesday be able to tell you which foods you should avoid and which you should emphasize, as well informing you of many other risk factors. He introduced me to a researcher from China who is working on decoding genetic patterns related to nutrition.

The many labs were filled with sophisticated equipment. Gadgets which looked like copy machines cost $150,000. Dr. Combs emphasized that the entire government nutrition research budget is quite small, "less than Mars spends per year to advertise M & Ms."

But the most interesting gadget to my mind was deep in the basement. It was a chamber with walls of eight-inch thick steel taken from the hulls of a pre-World War II ship. The steel was lined with lead. Inside was a sort of X-ray machine.

The idea? To determine how long certain nutrients linger in the body, scientists make those nutrients slightly radioactive. The radioactivity is so slight that it amounts to 1/10,000th of the radiation in a modern X-ray. But to detect that slight a radioactive charge, all other cosmic rays must be eliminated.

It is sobering to think that the only thing that can keep our bodies from being pierced with radioactive rays all day and night is a foot of steel and lead.

Those are just a few of the things I learned on a fascinating three-hour visit to the Human Nutrition Research Lab.