June 20, 2014 -- A Fruit Billionaire Tries to Rewrite the Textbook of MedicineJuly 7, 2014
Rows of small white bungalows, once the property of workers at the local textile mill, still line the streets of Kannapolis, North Carolina. A larger-than-life bronze statue of town hero and NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Sr. looms over the town square, and the single-screen Gem Theater just off Main Street shows the latest movie releases on weekends. It is, on the surface, a traditional Southern town.
But a short walk from the center of Kannapolis, just down the street from the local Baptist church and across from a tractor supply store, stands a blocky, nondescript gray building with a small parking lot and manicured landscaping. Inside is a huge warehouse, the length of two football fields. The space hums with the whirr of high-powered fans in the ceiling, which cool rows of tall gray freezers, each marked with an orange biohazard sticker. A technician opens a freezer and cold white mist pours out, revealing small metal boxes full of plastic vials—vials containing human blood and urine.
These are the bodily fluids of the locals. Since 2009, scientists have been collecting and storing biological samples from Kannapolis-area residents as part of a grand experiment. The project is big and bold: collect large amounts of physical and biochemical information from 50,000 townspeople, store that information in computer databases, then sift through it for molecular signals of disease. The goal is to rewrite the textbook of medicine.