Food Innovation Center

Collaborating for a healthier, hunger-free world.

Harrison on the front lines of vitamin A research

Earl HarrisonEarl Harrison, a charter member of the Food Innovation Center, has made his mark at Ohio State as a Dean's Distinguished Professor of Human Nutrition since 2006. Before coming to Ohio State, Harrison started his accomplished career at Wright State University and went on to work at medical schools before becoming a Research Leader at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In 2010, Harrison received media attention because researchers in his lab developed a urine test that can simultaneously measure a marker for the amount of garlic a person has consumed and a marker for a compound related to risk for cancer (see video below). Pilot study results indicated that the two markers were inversely related, meaning that the higher the marker for the amount of garlic consumed, the less there was of the marker for cancer risk.

Despite the attention the garlic study received, Harrison was quick to point out that studying the effects of garlic on cancer is not his primary area of research. "The garlic study was an anomaly," said Harrison, sitting casually in his office chair in Campbell Hall. "My research is primarily on vitamin A and carotenoids; how nutrients are absorbed in the intestine, how they get to where they need to go within the body, and how they are metabolized. It's about transport and function."

Harrison described his passion for research on vitamin A deficiency, citing that it is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that vitamin A deficiencies cause 250,000-500,000 children to become blind each year. Tragically, half of those children die within 12 months of losing their sight. Vitamin A deficiency also increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections.Harrison would like to see multidisciplinary organizations at Ohio State like the Food Innovation Center tackle the global problem of nutrient deficiencies. To that end, he is part of a team that received an inaugural Food Innovation Center research award to analyze the role of vitamin A in preventing infectious diseases.

"I came to Ohio State because I knew of the people and good work that was being done in human nutrition here," said Harrison. "I thought it would be a good place to collaborate."

He went on to articulate that having the Food Innovation Center as a resource to facilitate collaborations is beneficial. "Ohio State is so big; it's sometimes hard to know where to go and who to find for the right expertise. Anything that the [Food Innovation] Center can do to help bring people together is a good thing." 

Harrison is currently leading a National Institutes of Health Research Project Grant (R01) in collaboration with Steven Schwartz (food analytical chemist) and Robert Curley (medicinal chemist), two other Food Innovation Center Members. The study examines the metabolism of carotenoids: colored pigments found in fruits and vegetables that are associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. The team hopes to uncover the molecular basis for carotenoids' health benefits.

Fresh vegetables"Believe it or not, before working with Steve [Schwartz], I did not have a lot of experience when it came to researching food. Now food issues are very interesting to me," Harrison admitted with a smile.

"Even though the NIH grant formed before the existence of the Center, it's our goal to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations like it," said Carolee Barber, Executive Manager for the Food Innovation Center."Innovative research that cuts across academic disciplines is needed to advance a healthier, hunger-free world."

Story composed and posted by Alex Barkley. 1/31/2011.