UChicago to partner on new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative biomedical research hub

CZ Biohub Chicago to bring together leading institutions to tackle grand scientific challenges

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced March 2 the launch of a new biomedical research hub in Chicago that will bring together the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with the goal of solving grand challenges in science on a 10- to 15-year time horizon.

The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Chicago will build upon the successes of the first Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in San Francisco, and it is the first to expand the CZ Biohub Network out of California. The CZ Biohub Network is a groundbreaking collaborative model for scientific research with leading research institutions in different regions.

Members of the CZ Biohub Network will partner to advance science and develop technologies that help understand how cells and tissues function, and that increase our understanding of human health and disease.

“We are excited to scale this successful model of collaborative science into a larger network by welcoming the new Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in Chicago,” said CZI co-founder and co-CEO Priscilla Chan. “This institute will embark on science to embed miniaturized sensors into tissues that will allow us to understand how healthy and diseased tissues function in unprecedented detail. This might feel like science fiction today, but we think it’s realistic to achieve huge progress in the next 10 years. I look forward to the advances in science and technology that this new Biohub will spur in studying how tissues function to understand what goes wrong in disease and how to fix it.”

CZ Biohub Chicago will focus on engineering technologies to make precise, molecular-level measurements of biological processes within human tissues, with an ultimate goal of understanding and treating the inflammatory states that underlie many diseases.

“The Chicago Biohub will create technologies that will transform our understanding of tissue-scale biology, revealing important information about the processes that take place in living tissues that could lead to new therapies,” said CZI co-founder and co-CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “This immense scientific challenge requires bringing together researchers and technologists in new ways to accomplish great science that isn’t done in conventional environments. The powerful collaborative model of the San Francisco Biohub has shown us that cross-disciplinary science leads to breakthroughs, and this integrated research model is a key part of how we’ll move towards curing, preventing, or managing all disease by the end of the century.”

The CZ Chicago Biohub will differ from the traditional academic research funding model; instead of solely splitting funding across faculty labs at different universities, it will create a new shared laboratory space in Chicago that will bring together staff scientists with expertise from the partner universities. Academic labs will also receive funding for individual faculty-led projects.

“What excites me about the CZ Biohub is not only its unique focus on developing next-generation instrumented tissue, but also the strength of the partnership among the three universities it convenes,” said University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos. “Partnership enriches our shared work immensely and advances discovery on the type of scale that no individual institution could achieve alone. Securing this opportunity reflects the fact that Chicago is a world-class force in biomedical research.”

CZ Biohub Chicago will be led by Prof. Shana O. Kelley of Northwestern University; Jeffrey Hubbell of the University of Chicago and Rashid Bashir of the University of Illinois played key roles in bringing together dozens of researchers from across the three universities to envision and plan the Biohub.

The center will initially focus on inflammation and the function of the immune system. Inflammation and overactive immune cells play a key role in many diseases, including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, and are also implicated in organ failure, diseases of the skin, Type 2 diabetes and severe infectious diseases like COVID-19.

But inducing inflammation in a controlled way can also be used to combat disease: in cancer immunotherapy, the immune system is unleashed and directed toward tumors.

“We’re thrilled to be part of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Network, which will galvanize multidisciplinary research and drive more progress than any one of these institutions could have achieved on its own,” said Kelley. “The scientific challenge we’re exploring—to develop new tools to better measure tissues and gain insights into inflammation—can only be solved by interdisciplinary collaboration, has large engineering challenges to surmount, and is wildly, but not impossibly, ambitious.”

Through advances in genomics, molecular biology, and most recently, single-cell biology, scientists have made great strides in understanding the structure and function of individual cells. But our organs are made up of specialized tissues that contain billions of cells—our heart muscle alone is estimated to comprise more than two billion cells—so gaining insights about how tissues work as a whole, in both health and disease, is an enormous challenge.

To begin to crack this problem, the engineered platforms that will be developed at the CZ Biohub Chicago will combine several state-of-the-art technologies to make the first holistic and direct measurements of inflammation in human tissue. These tools will allow researchers to monitor the activity of immune cells within tissues in real time, with the goal of finding ways to steer the immune system away from the “tipping points” that lead to inflammatory disorders. With a more comprehensive understanding of this biology, new approaches to treating a range of diseases will be made possible, with the ultimate aim of making inflammation-driven diseases more treatable and preventable.

“We are excited about the opportunities that the Biohub will bring to the field of immunology, as well as for the Chicago and Illinois regional research community,” said Prof. Juan de Pablo, the Executive Vice President for Science, Innovation, National Laboratories, and Global Initiatives at the University of Chicago and a member of the planning committee for the Biohub.Attracting this hub to Chicago represents the culmination of efforts from many scientists and engineers across all three partner institutions, and moving forward, its unique structure will allow for rich cross-pollination across disciplinary and industry lines.”

The CZ Biohub Chicago will work with CZI teams, including the science technology team, which aspires to advance biomedical research and develop technologies to understand, observe, measure, and analyze any biological process within the human body — across spatial scales and in real time.

“A thorough understanding of tissue inflammation is a holy grail of human biology—it would lead the way to design treatments for a myriad of diseases and disorders,” said Jeffrey Hubbell, the Eugene Bell Professor in Tissue Engineering with the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and member of the executive committee for the Chicago CZI Biohub. “This hub will allow us to take significant steps forward in the field of immunology, enabling measurements that are now impossible and insights that have previously been unattainable.”

Over the next decade, CZ Science is focused on understanding the mysteries of the cell and how cells interact within systems, which could lead to groundbreaking discoveries that will help cure, prevent or manage all disease by the end of this century. To achieve this mission, CZI builds open source software tools to accelerate science and generate more accurate and biologically important sources of data, funds scientific research worldwide to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and supports research that can’t be done in conventional environments. 

The inaugural Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in San Francisco was founded in 2016 in partnership with Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of California, San Francisco. Its cell atlas project led the development of the first whole organism cell atlases in humans, mice, flies and lemurs, and also led to creation of maps of the internal cell architecture of cells. Its infectious disease project helped accelerate California’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Bay Area and statewide, and develops technologies to identify emerging disease outbreaks around the world.