University receives $17 million for bio research

By Joel Lanceta

The University, along with eight other U.S. universities, was awarded $17 million by the National Institute of Health (NIH) to build a Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) that will study potentially dangerous infectious diseases. The announcement came on September 30 from the Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH’s parent agency.

“These awards to build high-level biosafety facilities are a major step towards being able to provide Americans with effective therapies, vaccines and diagnostics for diseases caused by agents of bioterror as well as for naturally occurring emerging infections such as SARS and West Nile virus,” said Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, at the September 30 press conference in Washington D.C.

Argonne National Laboratory, located in Argonne, Illinois, is the site of the proposed RBL. In addition to Chicago, RBL’s will also be established at Duke University, Colorado State University, Tulane University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the University of Missouri, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Tennessee.

National Biocontainment Laboratories (NBL) will be built at both the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galvaston and Boston University.

The NIH hopes that the eight centers will become an integral part of the nation’s defenses in pathology and infectious illnesses. Scientists at the facilities will develop new methods of treatment and approaches to combat potential biological weapons of terrorists, such as anthrax, smallpox, and bubonic plague.

“With input from the scientific community, we have crafted a biodefense research agenda emphasizing rapid translation of basic findings into real products,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), in a news brief. “Although the agenda is ambitious, America’s scientists have the commitment, creativity, and energy equal to the task. The new laboratories will give these dedicated scientists space to conduct this critical research, and equally important, they will be able to conduct it safely.”

This is the second large financial allotment from the federal government given to the University this year for biomedical research. On September 4, NIAID awarded the University more than $35 million in grants to fund similar research into the causes and treatments of infectious diseases in an effort to build up the nation’s biodefenses.

With this grant, the University of Chicago was awarded the position of lead institution in the Midwestern Regional Center for Excellence (RCE) in Biodefense in Emerging Infectious Diseases Research, a research effort that also includes Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, and 11 other upper-Midwestern universities, hospitals, and research facilities.

The NBL and RBL sites were chosen based on multiple factors, but were primarily based on the scientific and technical merit of the institutions.

James Madara, the Dean of the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine, described the process as an indication of the stature of the medical community in Chicago.

“We were chosen by competitive ranking (review at NIH level) with other University-led consortia who similarly applied.” Madara said. “It should be noted that the RBL and RCE applications both reflect an enormous amount of work done by our intellectual leader in this area, Olaf Schneewind, professor of molecular genetics and cell biology and chair of the Committee on Microbiology.”

Schneewind, who is also the head of the Midwestern RCE, believes that both facilities on campus will be a boon to the scientific community in Chicago.

“The NIH grants give Chicago the opportunity to build new research programs, attract new faculty and develop international leadership,” Schneewind said.

The biocontainment labs will also be equipped to assist national, state, and regional public health officials in the event of a natural or terrorist disease emergency.

“The science that emerges focuses not only on bioterrorism, but on the related fields of re-emerging infectious diseases, antibiotic resistance, etc.” Madara said. “Additionally, much of what we have learned about the biology of cell-signaling eukaryotic cells comes from analysis of how pathogens affect them. Thus, what better classes of pathogens to study than those that profoundly alter our own physiology? The scientific impact of these studies is high and not limited to the topic of terrorism.”

Construction on the RBL should begin shortly, and the University is currently trying to acquire an additional $13 million from outside sources for the construction. The building of these facilities is expected to generate about 50-100 jobs in the Chicago area.