NIH to fund Midwestern regional center for study of emerging diseases

September 4, 2003

The University of Chicago, as the lead institution for a Regional Center of Excellence (RCE) for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, has been awarded a grant of more than $35 million over five years by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of the National Institutes of Health.

The RCE, a collaborative effort including researchers from the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, and 11 additional upper-Midwestern universities, hospitals and research organizations, will apply the tools of modern science to mankind's age-old battle against infectious disease.

NIAID plans to invest approximately $350 million over five years in eight such centers around the country.

The Midwestern RCE will be headed by Olaf Schneewind, MD, PhD, professor of molecular genetics & cell biology and chair of the committee on microbiology at the University of Chicago, and Robert Murphy, MD, the John P. Phair Professor of Infectious Diseases at Northwestern University Medical School.

"While this project has been driven by recent concerns about bioterrorism, the knowledge we will gain from it could have a significant impact on humanity's eternal battle against all infectious diseases," said Schneewind. "The NIH is placing high priority on research on the diseases caused by organisms that could be used as bioterror agents, as well as diseases that are emerging or re-emerging threats to public health."

The regional centers are a key element in NIAID's strategic plan to expand research in the detection, prevention and treatment of potentially lethal illness that can be caused by biological agents -- ranging from the known pathogens that could be used for bioterrorism to new and as yet little-known emerging diseases that develop naturally, such as SARS, West Nile virus, drug-resistant bacteria and many others.

The Midwestern RCE will focus on the development of diagnostic, therapeutic and vaccine products for anthrax, botulism, tularemia, hemorrhagic fever viruses, and plague.

Such research, based on genomics, proteomics and a molecular-level understanding of cell function, is expected to have profound and far-reaching consequences over the next decade and beyond.

"Much of what we know about the biology of our own cells comes from the study of microbes that disrupt those processes," said James Madara, MD, dean of the Division of the Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. "What better way to learn more than to focus on the organisms that have the maximum effect on those critical cellular pathways?"

The University of Chicago has a distinguished history in this field, dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, when Howard Taylor Ricketts discovered a group of organisms now known as the Rickettsia, including the microbes that cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and typhus. The RCE builds on strengths at the University and its collaborators and complements existing plans to expand research in microbiology at Chicago.

"This fits well into our continuing efforts to encourage innovative research that crosses boundaries," Madara added, "bringing together specialists from many different disciplines, including the physical and even the social sciences. The RCE will extend that approach to crossing institutional boundaries."

The Midwestern RCE pulls together research teams from 14 institutions in the six states included in federally-designated Region V. The research teams will involve more than 300 scientists, said Schneewind, including a core of more than 60 key researchers who specialize in microbiology, infectious diseases, public health, medicine, vaccine research and pharmacology, as well as related disciplines such as biochemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics and nanotechnology.

"The strength of the Midwestern RCE is in the quality and diversity of its member institutions and scientists," said Murphy. "Together we will be able to pool our resources and develop novel diagnostic tests, vaccines and treatment against the agents of bioterrorism and emerging infections."

Besides performing research, the RCE will act as a regional resource for public health officials, providing expertise, rapid diagnosis, support and advice about containment and treatment in the event of a bioterror outbreak or the emergence of new disease-causing agents. It will also teach young scientists and technicians how to do productive and safe research on infectious disease.

The participating institutions are the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, Battelle Memorial Institute, Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute, Mayo Clinic, Medical College of Wisconsin, Michigan State University, Notre Dame University, Purdue University, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Most of these institutions, including the University of Chicago, already have small, specially equipped laboratories to handle "select agent class-A pathogens" such as Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) or Yersinia pestis (plague). The University is currently renovating two additional small laboratories to extend that capacity.

At the same time, the University of Chicago has applied for a separate grant of more than $20 million to construct a much larger facility that would support the entire RCE. If funded, this 54,100 square-foot Regional Biocontainment Laboratory would be located at Argonne National Laboratory, 25 miles southwest of Chicago.

The regional laboratory would be designed to safely conduct research on a larger scale involving microbes that cause diseases such as anthrax, botulism and plague. The location provides the advantage of proximity to Argonne's facilities for computation, structural biology and observation, including easy access to the Advanced Photon Source, the most brilliant source of hard X-rays for research in the western hemisphere. An announcement about laboratory funding is expected within a few weeks.

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