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New NU labs at Prentice site will find cures

October 31, 2012

Chicago Sun-TImes

Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago is a leader in the field of medical research for countless conditions, from autoimmune diseases and life-threatening degenerative diseases to complicated mental health issues.

Medical researchers from Feinberg and scientists from Northwestern’s main Evanston campus have collaborated on innovative treatments and breakthroughs that carry the research from the lab to the bedside at university-affiliated hospitals in Chicago.

The willingness to innovate and explore uncharted territory has placed Northwestern ahead of the curve on a seemingly unstoppable trajectory. But, to expand these discoveries, the school must expand its current research operations.

To do that the university plans to build a 21st century research facility on the site of the original 1970s-era Prentice Women’s Hospital, helping expand its academic biomedical research hub by adding a cutting-edge new building adjacent to its main research building on the Chicago campus.

The endeavor would bring in $150 million in additional annual research grants to the institution, create thousands of jobs and have an economic impact of nearly $4 billion over the decade after construction of the building.

But the arguments by some to landmark the former Prentice hospital, which is expected to come before the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on Thursday, threaten that initiative. Chicago needs this new facility and so do patients waiting for cures.

The enhanced research capability of the modern research facility is central to the university’s goal of joining the world’s top-tier medical research programs, an effort that Northwestern believes will require the University to double the amount of research funding it incurs each year. The state-of-the-art facility will attract medical professionals from around the globe, solidifying Chicago’s place as a global leader in medical research.

Last year, Northwestern’s Dr. Teepu Siddique made history with the discovery of a common disease process for all forms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal neurodegenerative disease that gradually paralyzes those affected. The underlying mechanisms of ALS previously were largely unknown. Without the dedication of Dr. Siddique and his team, this still might be the case.

Equally stunning breakthroughs were documented in studies of neurodegenerative diseases published this year under the direction of Dr. Martin Watterson. Feinberg research has developed a class of drug with the potential to be used as a blanket therapy for the conditions of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and the treatment of traumatic brain injuries through controlling the inflammation thought to play a major role in the progression of these chronic conditions.

During the last year, a Northwestern researcher also has developed the first blood test to diagnose major depression in teens by checking for a specific set of genetic markers to provide objective medical diagnoses. This approach is an unprecedented deviation from the traditional psychological approach to the diagnosis of mental health diseases, which relies solely on the patient’s description of their symptoms.

Northwestern’s efforts with this project have the potential to be transformational not only for the university, but in establishing Chicago as a center for medical breakthroughs and innovation.

While some preservationists argue that the abandoned Prentice building should be landmarked, Northwestern’s plans for the research center have been years in the making, and the facility would benefit the medical field enormously. There are cures to be found here in Chicago, and we must ensure that our uniquely talented, brilliant minds are the ones to bring them to light.

Wendy Abrams is executive director of the Les Turner ALS Foundation; Mary Dollear is vice president at Lupus Foundation of America, Illinois Chapter; Ellyn Kodroff is president of Campaign Urging Research for Eosinophilic Disease, and Ann Peterson is executive director of the Scleroderma Foundation, Greater Chicago Chapter.