Growing up in Kannapolis, Summer Goodson knew that the mammoth Cannon Mills textile complex was the lifeblood of the community.
Members of her family worked in the plant for 70 years before Pillowtex shuttered the facility in 2003. Little did Goodson know that she would carry on her family’s legacy by one day working in some of the same buildings. But instead of spinning cotton into fiber, Goodson is turning research into medical advancements aimed at helping treat male infertility.
Goodson, 35, is now a post-doctoral research associate at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute, part of the North Carolina Research Campus that now encompasses the former mill complex.
“I started graduate school in the summer of 2003 when the mill closed,” Goodson said. “If someone had told me then that I would be back here, doing what I was destined to do, I would have known they were crazy.”
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Goodson is researching the hypothesis that the nutrient betaine, commonly found in foods such as beets and spinach, could improve sperm function in certain men.
Starting in 2014, Goodson began searching for men with the variant in a particular gene that helps metabolize the nutrient choline into betaine in the body. Mice that lack the gene are infertile, and men with the variant have less-active sperm. Goodson’s study participants take dietary supplements of betaine to see if it improves their sperm function.
It took Goodson nearly a year to find six men genetically qualified to participate in a sperm function study. Male fertility is still a sensitive subject, making it tough to rely on traditional recruitment methods, she said.
But after the NRI partnered with Duke University’s Murdock Study, which has nearly 12,000 participants, Goodson needed only one day to identify 13 men who have the genetic variant she studies. The Murdock Study, which also is based at Research Campus, conducts research into chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
“The Murdock Study has a ready population of men who are interested in clinical studies, and samples that allow me to more easily find men who meet our criteria,” she said. “Our return on investment is much, much higher.”
It’s a collaboration that Goodson and her colleagues believe could potentially help thousands of men with the variant, which affects 5 percent to 9 percent of the general population, conceive a child more easily. Goodson’s research is a pilot project that will determine whether the NRI moves ahead with a full-scale study and hundreds of participants.
With more than 400,000 biological samples from 11,715 people, Duke’s Murdock Study is a uniquely reliable resource for researchers.
“It’s a priority for us to partner with our NCRC neighbors on exciting research,” said Douglas Wixted, the Duke Murdock Study project leader for strategy. “This collaboration with the NRI was a perfect opportunity to support campus researchers who had a unique challenge.”
In May 2015, Duke provided 150 anonymous DNA samples to Goodson. Her analysis indicated that 13 of the 150 samples, or 8.6 percent, showed the genetic variant, which is consistent with the prevalence in the general population.
After that initial success, Duke provided 87 additional samples, which yielded seven men with the genetic marker. The next step is reaching out to the sample subjects. Five men have agreed to take part in Goodson’s research, and she plans to add five more.
“This could mean hope for some couples having trouble conceiving naturally,” Goodson said. “There are far too few options available to couples affected by male infertility, and this could represent a way to improve fertility using a natural, non-invasive approach.”
John Deem is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.