Mary Ann Lila
Director, Plants for Human Health Institute
David H. Murdock Distinguished Professor
Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences
Dr. Mary Ann Lila’s research focuses on the bioactive compounds found in some foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, that confer human health benefits when the food is eaten. The benefits of eating foods and beverages rich in these compounds are well-established, according to Dr. Lila, but the identity and protective mechanisms of the compounds have not been defined in all cases. Dr. Lila’s research is aimed at identifying bioactive compounds and understanding how they work. She is particularly interested in compounds that appear to help counteract chronic disease and promote endurance.
The LilaLab looks at food plants not for nutritional or caloric value, but with the goal of discerning the preventative, curative or therapeutic properties hidden in every bite. While plants have long been recognized as having pharmaceutical properties, the active plant compounds are often synthesized and reduced to a pill. With greater understanding of the medicinal properties in edible foods, individuals may, one day, be prescribed a ration of curative foods to combat diseases, rather than a dosage of drugs. Dr. Lila’s lab works to identify these bioactive compounds and define the protective mechanism which will ultimately lead to recommendations for how much or how often a food would need to be consumed to confer health benefits. She works specifically with blueberries, black currants, cranberries and other berries. The pigment responsible for the red or deep blue colors is anthocyanin, a compound associated with heart-health, neuroprotective benefits, cancer chemoprevention and antidiabetic properties.
As a result of Dr. Lila’s efforts to locate and study plants around the world, her research has taken on an international flavor. She has large ongoing research projects in Egypt, Central Asia, Oceania, Mexico and sub-Saharan Africa, and is vice president of the Global Institute for BioExploration (GIBEX). In 1999, Dr. Lila won a Fulbright Senior Scholarship to conduct research and outreach in New Zealand. She travels to New Zealand at least once a year for ongoing research efforts.
As a partner with the Medicines for Malaria Venture, the LilaLab is investigating prioritized plant species with potential efficacy for treatment or prophylaxis of malaria. The principle objective of the project is to accelerate the discovery and development of new phytopharmaceutical drugs and to facilitate commercialization to benefit disease endemic countries. The principle role of the LilaLab Team is structural characterization of novel antimalarial bioactives isolated through activity guided fractionation and confirmed as having a high degree of antimalarial activities, including intensive HPLC, LC-MS and NMR analysis.
In addition, Dr. Lila has served as the U.S. correspondent for the International Association of Plant Biotechnology and as president of the Society for In Vitro Biology. She is also a fellow of the society, and served for four years as associate director of the nationally acclaimed Functional Foods for Health Program.
In 2010, Dr. Lila was named the first David H. Murdock Distinguished Professor. Three Murdock professorships were created with a $2 million gift to N.C. State from David H. Murdock, owner of Dole Foods and other businesses. Murdock’s gift was matched with $1 million from the North Carolina Distinguished Professors Endowment Trust Fund, and the $3 million total used to create endowments that fund the three professorships.