Hospitals’ Kennedy Center nets NIH grant

By Mischa Fierer

The University’s Joseph P. Kennedy Mental Retardation and Development Disabilities Center has won a $4.6-million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The grant, to be distributed over five years, will bolster facilities and support for the 47 biologists and social scientists who research the causes and treatments of mental development disabilities as part of the Kennedy Center. The scientists hail from three institutions: the U of C, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Northwestern University, with most of the investigators coming from the U of C, according to Nancy Schwartz, director of the Kennedy Center and professor of pediatrics, biochemistry and molecular biology.

The award will also allow the Kennedy Center, an officially sanctioned National Institutes of Health (NIH) research facility, to expand its research fields.

“[It is] officially a center now with this grant,” Schwartz said.

The Center was founded by a gift from the Kennedy family in 1962 with the goal of promoting “collaborative research in the causes, prevention, and treatment of mental retardation and developmental disabilities,” according to a U of C Hospitals press release.

The grant is part of a push by the NIH to encourage cross-institutional collaboration.

Research at the center focuses on neuroscience, model organisms, and genetics and biostatistics, according to the press release. Within the center, specific focus groups study individual areas of interest, such as epilepsy or sudden infant death syndrome.

The grant will provide money for key facilities that perform specialized procedures. For example, in the animal models facility, investigators inject an abnormal protein into an animal to determine the protein’s effects on mental development.

Schwartz said that when studying brain malformations that lead to mental retardation, investigators look at whether they are caused by genetic disorders or by pre-natal injuries. The center also brings together social scientists to examine social influences on behavior. Some Kennedy Center investigators work in the social sciences building as well as in the biology building, Schwartz said.

“It’s an umbrella, a mechanism to bring people together who have a common interest or research focus,” she said.