Building a research foundation to optimize health at the Duchossois Family Institute

Scientist pipettes liquid into a vial in a  lab

In 2017, the University of Chicago Medicine established the Duchossois Family Institute: Harnessing the Microbiome and Immunity for Human Health (DFI). The institute is dedicated to developing new knowledge about human biological defense systems, including the microbiome, and their potential for preventing disease and maintaining lifelong wellness.

After a national search, renowned physician-scientist Eric G. Pamer, MD, was recruited to become DFI’s inaugural director in July 2019. Formerly with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Pamer is tasked with building the DFI’s research capabilities, from recruiting new faculty and building core facilities to translating discoveries into treatments that can be used in the clinic. We spoke to him about his plans, and what he hopes to see the DFI accomplish.

The core mission of the DFI is developing science to maintain wellness and prevent disease, rather than treating disease after the fact. How does your own work square with that mission?

The work in my lab in the last 10 years has focused on the role of the microbiome in enhancing resistance against a variety of infectious diseases associated with cancer treatment. These infections occur in a broad population of patients though, so there are many directions that I could see my laboratory's research going that would be possible here that I wouldn't be able to pursue in my previous position.

I think that squares beautifully with what we are attempting to do here at the DFI. Much of the work we do is focused on the microbiome, the complex microbial populations that live on our bodies and especially in our intestine. We now know from over a decade's work by many labs around the world that the composition of the microbiome can enhance disease resistance. We know that antibiotic use, for example, or poor diets can change the microbes that live within us, and that those changes can be drivers of a number of diseases like autoimmune diseases, inflammatory diseases and susceptibility to infection. So, dissecting the microbiome and identifying the specific bacterial strains that are associated with health is one way I think we can actually address the exact mission that was proposed for the DFI.

Eric Pamer, MD
Eric G. Pamer, MD

What are your immediate goals as you build the DFI’s research capabilities?

An important step for the DFI will be recruiting faculty members who have a general focus on research to enhance disease resistance or to promote health. Most of the people we are recruiting will have at least a partial focus on the microbiome because it's such a new area that needs deep and broad investigation. There are so many opportunities there.

We are also going to work on establishing core facilities. One will be a biobank of commensal bacterial strains, or the bacteria that normally live in the body. This is something we have already started and we have over 1,000 strains of bacteria that we have cultured from healthy donors. Now we are sequencing them and making their entire genomes available for academic investigators who want to test the ability of these different strains to provide health benefits or disease resistance. We are also going to establish a core faculty to measure metabolites, or the chemicals they produce, which involves mass spectrometry and protein and nutrient purification tools.

Ultimately, we want to be able to develop commensal bacteria that produce substances that we think are beneficial, so we can administer them to patients in clinical trials. My longer-term goal is for the DFI to be able to facilitate clinical trials that will help us reestablish the microbiome in patients where it has been damaged, or to potentially modify the microbiome in patients who may be vulnerable to one disease or another.

The most important thing is to bring in people who are excited about the opportunities that the DFI will offer.

As you recruit new faculty, is there a certain specialty or background you’re looking to find?

Not really, no. In my experience, I think the most important thing is to get people who have a high level of energy, enthusiasm and curiosity, people who can adapt to their environments. I certainly know that I did that with every move I made between institutions. You end up addressing the problems that are important in that institution. My research program completely changed over the two decades I was at Sloan Kettering, and I would anticipate that as we recruit people here they will almost certainly evolve over the course of five to 10 or 15 years. So, the most important thing is to bring in people who are excited about the opportunities that the DFI will offer to people and make sure they are adaptable and looking to address important scientific questions that are biomedically relevant.

Is the DFI’s mission of promoting wellness daunting because it’s such a broad, open-ended goal?

It would be daunting if our goal were to prevent every possible disease. For example, we will potentially have researchers who are interested in the role of the microbiome in vascular disease. That's a very important problem. Preventing vascular occlusion could have huge health benefits to broad populations. But I don't know if that's who we're going to bring in. We may bring in somebody who's very focused on the microbiome and prevention of Parkinson's disease, or diabetes, or Alzheimer's. So clearly, addressing everything is not something we're going to be able to do, but addressing a wide range of diseases is—with the right people.

What we want to avoid is lightly touching on every possible disease. Instead, I think our goal should be to really make a difference. And making a difference in this area is going to require establishing correlations, testing them in animal models, getting at mechanisms, developing approaches to alter the microbiome and moving things into the clinic. That perhaps is a little bit daunting, but I see it as something that could be done as long as we maintain a focus and keep pushing in potentially many specific areas.

What does success for the DFI look like to you?

Success to me is recruiting a dynamic group of assistant and associate professors who establish productive research programs that are publishing important papers, obtaining grant funding and making discoveries that can be exploited to enhance disease resistance and to optimize health. I think if we can establish that, then getting the attention of people in the clinical world where there will be the opportunity to develop clinical trials and move things from the laboratory into the clinic would be the second phase of this. That to me would be success.