University of Chicago receives $42 million in stimulus funds for biological and medical research

University of Chicago receives $42 million in stimulus funds for biological and medical research

October 5, 2009

Researchers at the University of Chicago have been awarded more than $42 million in research funding from the National Institutes of Health, part of a $5 billion boost for medical research from the federal economic stimulus package.

The funding, the most awarded to any Illinois research institution, will fund cutting-edge research in genetics, medicine and biodefense and help advance effective treatments for asthma, pulmonary disease and cancer.

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins last week called the 12,000 funded projects "some of the most innovative and creative directions for research that I have ever seen in 16 years at NIH."

"Millions of Americans alive today and millions more in future generations will live longer, healthier lives because of the grants we are announcing today," Collins said.

At the University of Chicago, more than 100 researchers shared $42 million from the supplemental research funding, with 15 projects receiving more than $500,000. The largest grant -- $5.6 million -- was awarded to a group led by Carole Ober, professor of human genetics and obstetrics & gynecology, and Don Nicolae, associate professor of genetic medicine. They will study the genetic underpinnings of asthma by combining data from 30,000 subjects at 10 U.S. research institutions.

"We're excited to receive the funding to launch a project that we think will open promising new avenues for asthma research," Ober said.

CONCERT, a collaborative effort between six U.S. health care centers headed by Jerry Krishnan, associate professor of pulmonary medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center, was awarded nearly $4 million as part of the stimulus package. Those funds will be used to find more effective treatments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, which is expected to be the 3rd most common cause of death in the U.S. by 2020.

"We're giddy," Krishnan said. "We're trying to understand what are the right treatments we should be offering our patients, and this grant will allow us to conduct for the first time in the United States groundbreaking high-impact, multi-center research that focuses on comparative effectiveness in COPD."

Similarly, an $800,000 award bestowed upon the Cancer and Leukemia Group B, a clinical research group chaired by Richard Schilsky, professor and chief of hematology/oncology at the University of Chicago, will accelerate enrollment in a nationwide clinical study of treatments for hard-to-treat triple-negative breast tumors.

In basic science laboratories, grant money will help University of Chicago scientists develop new methods to unravel the genetic mechanisms that underlie human disease.

Kevin White, professor of human genetics, received two $900,000 grants to fund his work for the NIH ENCODE Project to create an encyclopedia of DNA elements. A new technique created in White's laboratory will be applied to the genomes of humans and Drosophila, the fruit fly that has historically been an important scientific model for genetic function.

"It relieves a bottleneck in these ENCODE Projects to systematically map or decode information in the genome," White said. "The genome projects have given us a sequence but they don't tell us what that sequence means, and the ENCODE project aims to be a first draft of the functional bits of DNA in human and model organism genomes."

Kathleen Millen, assistant professor of human genetics, received three grants totaling close to $1 million for research on modeling human disease with mouse models. The largest award, at $500,000, will fund the development of a faster and cheaper technique to switch off disease-related genes in mice. Genetic modifications, which today take a year and a half and cost $50,000, could be replaced by a six-week procedure that costs $2,000, Millen said.

"Right now it's very time-consuming and very expensive to do," Millen said. "But this grant proposes a new way to get a quick and dirty answer as to what phenotype the mutation will cause in mice."

The Great Lakes Regional Center of Excellence, a biodefense and infectious disease research group directed by Olaf Schneewind, professor and chair of microbiology at the University of Chicago, was awarded a $911,000 grant to create new broad-spectrum antibiotics that can kill bacteria previously resistant to drugs.

In remarks at the National Institutes of Health on September 30, President Barack Obama called the $5 billion awarded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, "the single largest boost to biomedical research in history."

"We're announcing that we've awarded $5 billion -- that's with a b -- in grants, through the Recovery Act, to conduct cutting-edge research all across America, to unlock treatments to diseases that have long plagued humanity, to save and enrich the lives of people all over the world," Obama said.