NC mill town once made sheets and towels. Now it draws volunteers for medical research.

What makes Helen Morrison tick?

At 97, Morrison lives in a Concord retirement community but walks almost daily, plays bridge four days a week and has never had a serious illness. Despite her regimen, and her suspicion that good genes are largely responsible, she seems mildly surprised at her good health.

“I just keep going,” she said.

When Morrison drove herself to an appointment this June at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis — she’s since stopped driving — she was playing her part in a long-running study that might help you too live, if not forever, at least longer and healthier.

She’s among more than 12,000 local people taking part in the Measurement to Understand the Reclassification of Disease of Cabarrus/Kannapolis — the long name for what’s more simply called the MURDOCK Study. Led by Duke University scientists, it’s among the largest medical studies of a single U.S. community.

The study is named for California billionaire David Murdock, who is 95. Murdock has invested more than $700 million in the Research Campus, which was founded in 2005, and in the David H. Murdock Research Institute there.

Murdock is the chairman of Dole Food Co., one of the world’s largest producers of fruits and vegetables, and believes that long, healthy lives reward people who eat right. “You can eat enough whipped cream and you’ll be dead in a hurry,” Murdock, who has said he wants to live to be 125, once told the Observer.

Dole Food Co. chairman David Murdock, left, chatted with then-UNC President Tom Ross after the California billionaire announced a $50 million gift for the David H. Murdock Research Institute in 2013. Murdock has invested more than $700 million in the research institute and the North Carolina Research Campus, both in Kannapolis. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

His vision of a world-class research center focused on health, nutrition and agriculture now sprawls across a 350-acre campus in Kannapolis, replacing the massive textile plant that had long dominated this former mill town.

The MURDOCK Study, launched in 2007 with $35 million from Murdock, is only one part of the work underway there.

The study recruited thousands of volunteers and collected their personal data, blood and urine to advance an emerging discipline known as precision medicine. Its goal is to move beyond one-size-fits-all medical therapies to tailored treatments that reflect individual differences in genes, environments and lifestyle. Instead of reacting to disease, doctors could more effectively prevent it.

All those blood and urine samples, combined with information on where and how the volunteers live, provide a wealth of data that scientists can tap over and over.

A researcher of coronary artery disease, for example, can look for patterns in the ribonucleic acid of thousands of volunteers for clues to who gets sick and why. A doctor who’s able to identify a patient’s risk of developing cognitive problems could take preventative steps rather than waiting for symptoms to appear.

“This is an opportunity for the community to be a part of understanding their health and what influences the health of their family, and their offspring, and their offspring’s offspring,” said Dr. Kristin Newby, the Duke cardiologist who leads the study.

“We let people know we may find things in their lifetime or in the lifetime of the investigators. We don’t promise it will turn into an immediate cure for cancer or diabetes, for example, but it will support understanding them.”

MURDOCK researchers have several different studies underway. Research has ranged from common conditions such as heart disease and diabetes to less frequent but debilitating ailments such as multiple sclerosis.

Helping others

Helen Morrison is taking part in a study that measures physical function as adults age. Much of the funding for it came from the MURDOCK Study and the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center at Duke.

“I thought that if I was so healthy and could contribute anything, I should,” Morrison said as she waited for a battery of physical tests in a third-floor hallway of the Research Campus building Duke shares.

Clinical research specialist Alice Glines first asked Morrison to walk as quickly as she could down the hallway. Morrison carried her cane but barely used it as she marched briskly along. Next, Glines had her try to balance on one leg for a minute. Then sit in a chair, stand and repeat as many times as she could in 30 seconds.

“Ready for bed!” Morrison cracked to onlookers after standing 11 times — more than some volunteers decades younger can do. “I hope all of you live long enough to do this and wonder why you’re doing it.”

Finally, Glines asked Morrison to walk up and down the hallway for six minutes. She slowed at the five-minute mark but completed the full test.

Other tests probed her concentration, memory and attention. Morrison was questioned about her daily habits, such as what she eats and which medicines she takes. Blood and urine samples were taken, adding to specimens that scientists will study for signals of physical decline.

Declines start early

The study is among the first to measure physical function across the adult lifespan, said leader Miriam Morey, who studies exercise and aging at the Duke University School of Medicine.

It’s already yielding interesting results.

Physical declines begin as early as the 50s, the study has found, decades sooner than they’re typically detected. Both men and women in that age range, for example, start finding it harder to stand on one leg or rise from a chair. Volunteers in the 60s began showing less aerobic endurance and walked slower.

Blood and urine drawn from the volunteers held more surprises. Substances called biomarkers, molecular patterns that serve as indicators of health or illness, signaled physical declines starting as early as the 30s.

Those results suggest that adults should start taking steps to maintain their strength and endurance well before turning 50, Morey said.

“Stay active, stay busy, eat healthy, laugh a lot and maintain your social connections. Have a purpose for living,” she said. “Those are the factors that we find again and again contributing to a long and healthy lifespan.”

Study volunteer Florence Kendall, who’s called Flo, has been an athlete since she took up basketball at 14. “I started shooting the basketball at Logan High School and I’m still shooting basketball at 84,” she said.

The Concord native is still competing, this time in numerous events in the Senior Games. She’s racked up about 150 awards in the games, including 17 gold medals in this year’s local competition in events ranging from miniature golf to basketball. She placed fourth in national competition, in horseshoes, last year.

Florence Kendall with some of her many Senior Games medals Courtesy of Florence Kendall

Kendall, a mother of three, lived in Virginia for much of her adult life before returning to Concord a decade ago (she relocated to Norfolk, Va., in October). When she heard a presentation on the MURDOCK Study and signed up, it was in part because two brothers had died of sickle cell anemia at 17 and 29. She never understood why they got sick and she didn’t.

“I think people, if they have a disease or anything, they should learn more about it and study it,” Kendall said. “This is why I’m interested in learning what’s in your family. I’m curious: I want to know why do I have this and somebody else doesn’t? And I like to make a difference if I can.”

The North Carolina Research Campus

California billionaire David Murdock knows Kannapolis from way back — when he bought sheet and towel maker Cannon Mills in 1982, downtown came with it.

Murdock sold the Cannon property a few years later, but reappeared after what had become Pillowtex Corp. filed for bankruptcy in 2003, throwing 4,300 local people out of work in the state’s largest mass layoff. Murdock, then-owner of Dole Foods, bought the company’s Pentagon-sized Plant 1 at auction and tore it down.

In 2005, he unveiled his plan for a world-class research center to rise from the rubble. Scientists and technicians tied to universities, Dole and other businesses would work where mill hands once had.

Today the academic and business partners at the North Carolina Research Campus employs about 470 people. Their research is focused on the intersection of human health, nutrition and agriculture: improved crops and food processing technology; how plants make nutrients and functional components of nutrition, such as antioxidants; research on cancer and other diseases; and targeted nutrition, the impact of nutrition on human performance and the science of analyzing complex biological data, called bioinformatics.

The David H. Murdock Research Institute supports those studies with state-of-the-art scientific equipment that can look at how genes function and how human metabolism works.

The Research Campus houses resident scientists from seven University of North Carolina campuses and Duke University. An upcoming addition will be the North Carolina Food Innovation Laboratory, a partnership of the Research Campus, N.C. State University, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Golden Leaf Foundation. The lab will focus on innovation and the commercialization of new food product development, processing, safety and packaging for existing corporate partners and new ventures.

Murdock himself still maintains a home in the area and visits when his schedule allows, his company said.

“It’s very easy to spend money in scientific research, but I want to see the results,” he said in announcing a $50 million gift in 2013. “Sometimes I have felt the results were too slow in coming, so I’m pushing, pushing. Let’s make some major discoveries.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender