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Buoyed by state funding, new biomedical research hub launches in Chicago

Biohub Fellow Hope Burks presents her research into inflammation monitoring to Gov. JB Pritzker at a launch event for the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Chicago.

With vocal support from the governor and $25 million from the state, biomedical researchers are beginning to work on studying the fundamentals of human disease at a new facility in Chicago.

The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub – named for philanthropists Priscilla Chan and her husband and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – is the second biomedical research center launched by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The first is in San Francisco.

In addition to initial state funding, the center will receive $250 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative over 10 years to fund research into inflammation, part of the body’s innate response to irritation and disease.

The for-profit philanthropy organization chose the Chicago location based on the application of a team of scientists from Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Theirs was chosen from a pool of 58 applications.

One of the things that set the Chicago applicants apart, according to Chan, was the enthusiasm from Gov. JB Pritzker, who sent a formal letter of support for the project as well as adding a more personal touch.

“Gov. Pritzker showed up at the applicant interview day as the top cheerleader of the team presenting their case,” Chan said at the Biohub’s launch event Thursday.

At the launch event, Pritzker delayed the day’s schedule – later lamenting he wasn’t able to “fully geek out” – when he refused to leave a lab because he wanted to discuss the potential applications of research into inflammation in nervous systems and muscle tissue.

“I’m gonna get in trouble,” Pritzker said when he noticed he was being watched by an event coordinator.

“Yeah, you are,” she replied, hurrying the governor out of the lab.

The $25 million state grant for the facility, which is still being processed, will come from the state’s Rebuild Illinois infrastructure program, according to a spokesperson from the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. A representative of the Biohub declined to divulge the total cost of the facility.  

The under-construction Biohub is scheduled to be completed in January. The plan for the facility mixes elements of a university engineering department and a tech startup. Tissue incubation labs will be located down the hall from flexible workspaces and an office kitchen and bar.

The blend between a Silicon Valley ethos and academic research goes beyond the office design and into its budget as well. That’s evidenced in the $250 million the lab is set to receive from CZI, which is primarily funded through Chan and Zuckerberg’s stock in Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook.

Shana Kelley, the Chicago Biohub’s president, said the steady revenue stream will allow it to bypass the typical search for ongoing funding that is common in academia.

“You don’t have to ask the question ‘could we fund this?’” Kelley told Capitol News Illinois. “You can just say ‘is this worth trying?’”

Kelley, a professor at Northwestern University who is currently incubating her third and fourth companies, said the funding and more collaborative research model allow researchers to focus on “high risk, high reward” ideas.

“We’re not doing a lot of the other things you have to do in an academic institution,” Kelley said. “We’re not training graduate students. I’m not teaching undergraduates.”

The “disease agnostic” focus on inflammation came from existing work at the Biohub’s three partner universities which each have labs focused on studying instruments that can be inserted into tissue and immunoengineering. This type of research mostly revolves around building technology that will measure biological processes at the molecular level within human tissues, with the ultimate goal of treating inflammation involved in many conditions such as cancer and autoimmune disease.

“We’ve got to get inflammation figured out,” Kelley said. “We’ve got to learn to control it.”

Currently, the research center has 11 staff members – with a planned staff of 30 to 50 – and has ongoing projects with partner universities. Hope Burks, a fellow at the Biohub, is working on creating devices that can be inserted into the skin that monitor inflammation in real time.

Burks said this research might be helpful in developing diagnostic or clinical tools that can identify and treat disease.

“What kind of inflammation is happening?” Burks said during a presentation Thursday. “Do they have different signaling patterns that are specific to each other? Once we see what types of inflammation, what is effective against that?”

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Capitol News Illinois

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation that provides coverage of state government to newspapers throughout Illinois. It is funded by donations from the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. The mission of Capitol News Illinois is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government. Capitol News Illinois provides year-round, daily coverage of the Legislature, including committee hearings; state agencies and issues; state office holders; and the Illinois Supreme Court and legal matters.

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