A researcher at N.C. State who made a career out of investigating the bacteria responsible for the words "contains live and active cultures" on every yogurt cup you've ever seen was recognized Friday for his work.
Todd Klaenhammer, who has spent 31 years in an NCSU lab, received the O. Max Gardner Award, the UNC system's top faculty honor. It recognizes a distinguished body of work primarily related to what some call "good bacteria," which we get through yogurt and other dairy products.
This bacteria helps bolster our immune systems, Klaenhammer explained Friday, drawing chuckles from members of the UNC system's Board of Governors as he accepted his award with a quickie version of Good Bacteria 101.
"If you count the number of cells in your body, there are 10 times more bacteria in you and on you than cells in your bodies," he told the audience, most of whom are not professors of food bioprocessing and nutrition sciences and thus had to take him at his word. "Think about that. They're the good guys. They protect you."
Klaenhammer explained that his research group - which has overseen the educations of 43 graduate students and 21 post-docs over the years -focuses in two areas. First, it works to understand the properties that make the bacteria beneficial to humans. And second, it goes a step further and looks for ways the bacteria can be used to deliver vaccines.
On that latter front, there's been progress. His work has created a new way to deliver an anthrax vaccine orally to mice, and it is also being used for HIV vaccine delivery research.
One projected benefit - because this bacteria can be easily made and stored in a dried form, it could provide a new immunization strategy in under-developed nations, where injections may not be feasible.
"The word 'groundbreaking' is used often," said Ann Goodnight, a UNC system board member who chaired the committee that selected Klaenhammer for the award. "But in the case of Dr. Klaenhammer, it is all too true."
The Gardner award honors top faculty from across the 16-university system, but in recent years it has had a Triangle flavor. Klaenhammer is the eighth member of the NCSU faculty to win the award since 1997; UNC Chapel Hill has had three winners in that same time period.
(NCSU and UNC-CH share one winner, chemist Joe DeSimone, who holds faculty appointments at both universities and won in 2000.
N.C. Central University faculty members have won twice in recent years as well – physicist Branislav Vlahovic in 2004 and biochemist Ken Harewood in 2006.