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Researchers join federal center to study infectious disease

Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Nine scientists of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are part of a newly created, federally funded Midwestern Regional Center of Excellence to be based at the University of Chicago.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday the selection of eight regional centers, which will be funded through the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), one of the National Institutes of Health. The eight centers will receive $350 million for the next five years.

The Midwestern Regional Center of Excellence (RCE) for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases Research includes more than 300 researchers from 14 institutions, including Illinois. The Midwestern Center will receive more than $7 million a year for five years to apply the tools of modern science against infectious disease.

“We will be collaborating with a large group of universities,” said Brenda Wilson, a professor of microbiology at Illinois and a member of the center’s executive committee. “We will focus on the problem of bioterrorism, but our collaborations also will serve as a priming mechanism preparing us for other potential new or emerging infections that might come along. This will get us rolling on how to deal with all of these types of infectious disease challenges.”

Funding for the Illinois participants will exceed $1 million a year, said Wilson, whose expertise is the structure, function and biochemical action of bacterial protein toxins, including diphtheria toxin, anthrax toxin and neurotoxins.

The Midwestern RCE will be headed by Olaf Schneewind, M.D., professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago, and Robert Murphy, M.D., professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University Medical School. Research will focus on the development of diagnostic, therapeutic and vaccine products for anthrax, botulism, tularemia, hemorrhagic fever viruses, and plague.

At Illinois, Paul Bohn, a professor of chemistry, will head a team looking at the detection of neurotoxins. Researchers will combine techniques from microbiology and chemical and materials engineering to develop sensitive devices than can discriminate tiny differences in neurotoxins. Working with Bohn will be microbiologists Wilson and Mengfei Ho, Mark Shannon, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, and Jonathan Sweedler, a professor of chemistry.

Wilson and Ho also will be working on antitoxins in collaboration with researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin (Milwaukee) and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The group, headed by the Milwaukee team, will develop therapeutic approaches such as vaccines against neurotoxins and post-exposure measures.

John Xu, a professor of microbiology, will be part of a team headed by researchers at Michigan State University and Schneewind. They will study the immune system’s response to Yersinia pestis (plague) and develop possible vaccines.

Neal Kelleher, professor of chemistry, Peter M. Yau, director of proteomics at the biotechnology center, and Sweedler will manage the center’s mass spectroscopy facility that will be used when needed by collaborators from the participating institutions.

Joanna Shisler, professor of microbiology, will participate along with several junior faculty members under a career development component of the program. Shisler, a pox virologist, will study the mechanisms that make pox viruses work.

“Since the terrorist attacks on American soil in 2001, NIAID has moved rapidly to bolster basic biomedical research and the development of countermeasures to defend the United States against deliberately released agents of bioterrorism as well as naturally occurring infectious diseases,” said Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., NIAID director. “The new RCE program provides a coordinated and comprehensive mechanism to support the interdisciplinary research that will lead to new and improved therapies, vaccines, diagnostics and other tools to protect the citizens of our country and the world against the threat of bioterrorism and other emerging and re-emerging diseases.”

Each center comprises a lead institution and affiliated institutions located primarily in the same geographical region. The eight lead institutions are: Duke University, Harvard Medical School, New York State Department of Health, University of Chicago, University of Maryland at Baltimore, University of Texas Medical Branch (Galveston), University of Washington, and Washington University in St. Louis.

In addition to the eight RCEs, NIAID is funding two Planning Grants for Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases. These centers, based at the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota, will support training, planning, research development and resource acquisition that could lead to the future establishment of a regional center.

The Midwestern Center’s members are the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, Battelle Memorial Institute, Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute, Mayo Clinic, Medical College of Wisconsin, Michigan State University, Notre Dame University, Purdue University, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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