Ground-breaking studies supported by Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust

Two generous grants from The Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust (CCT) are providing investigators at Children’s Memorial Research Center with the opportunity to advance studies in very different fields: discovering the causes of food allergies, and uncovering the process of organ and limb regeneration.

Nearly 6 percent of all children and 3 ½ percent of adults are affected by food allergies – a condition that can prove fatal. Common allergens include cow milk, eggs, peanuts, fish, shellfish and wheat. Thanks to the grant, Xiaobin Wang, MD, MPH, ScD, and her research team are investigating the biological mechanisms of food allergy. Wang is the Mary Ann & J. Milburn Smith Research Professor and director of the Mary Ann & J. Milburn Smith Child Health Research Program at the research center.

“I’m sincerely grateful for the funding from the Searle family and the Chicago Community Trust that has made this cutting-edge study possible,” says Wang, whose research is also supported by the Bunning Food Allergy Project and the Sacks Family Fund.

An ongoing multi-center study has indicated that there is a significant genetic component to food allergy. In her research project, Wang, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, is utilizing genomics – the study of genes – and looking at the role of proteins in food allergy in hopes of making discoveries that may lead to the development of more effective prevention or treatment strategies for those with food allergy.

“The prevalence of food allergy has increased dramatically over the last decade or so,” says Wang. “However, it is very much under-studied and under-funded as compared to other diseases such as asthma and diabetes. Collectively, these projects will enable us to better understand the etiology and biological mechanisms of food allergy.”

In his research project, “Rebuilding a Heart,” Hans-Georg Simon, PhD, is examining the abilities of newts and zebra fish to regenerate lost appendages and injured organs, including the heart. Simon is the Bernard L. Mirkin Research Scholar in the Developmental Biology Program at the research center, and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Feinberg School.

Each year, approximately 650,000 people in the US survive a heart attack, which results in a scarring of the damaged heart muscle tissue. According to Simon, the remaining muscle tries to compensate, which can lead to such complications as arrhythmias and even cause death.

As embryos, humans have the ability to replace lost structures, like heart cells, and heal wounds without scarring. But, says Simon, humans begin to lose that ability during the final trimester of pregnancy, when the immune system begins to develop.

“At some point there is a diversion between the regenerative pathways in humans and, for example, amphibians like newts,” says Simon, who notes that actually more species have regenerative abilities than do not. “If we can identify what this diversion is, we may be able to one day develop novel drugs that will allow us to change the ‘switch’ from the scar pathway to the regeneration pathway. This discovery would undoubtedly lead to dramatic improvements in care and treatment of individuals who have suffered a heart attack. That’s why the visionary support from The Searle Fund and the CCT is so important to establish the research base now.”

The Searle family and the Chicago Community Trust are leading an initiative to make Chicago a leader in the biomedical sciences through the creation of the Chicago Biomedical Consortium. The organization supports multi-institutional collaborations aimed at making the Chicago area a leader in the biomedical sciences.

“These grants to Dr. Wang and Dr. Simon support cutting edge research and build on the existing work of the Consortium,” says Nancy S. Searle, Searle Family Consultant. “The Searle Family is enthusiastic about supporting research that will stimulate innovation and provide for new and improved medical treatments.”

“Children’s Memorial is an important center of research and care for children, and I am pleased that through the generosity of the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust we are able to contribute to a strong research agenda that will further its work,” adds Terry Mazany, President and CEO of the Trust

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