A native Chicagoan, Tom Shanley had an inkling in his youth that he wanted to be a pediatrician and work at what was then Children’s Memorial Hospital.

A former college quarterback, he still has the speed, stamina, snap judgment and leadership skills that are needed for his comprehensive roles across the Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

As of Aug. 1, he is the Founders’ Board Centennial Professor at Northwestern, and at Lurie Children’s he is chair of the Department of Medicine and president of the Pediatric Faculty Foundation.

He returns home after 11 years of leading the transformation of clinical care, translational research and faculty collaboration at the University of Michigan Medical School. Dr. Shanley focuses on moving science and patient care ahead faster and changing processes and methods to accelerate discoveries and diagnoses. He served as the school’s associate dean for clinical and translational research, director of the Michigan Institute for Clinical Health Research, and director of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

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Tom Shanley, MD, with a group of young patients at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Today at age 52, he is an internationally renowned physician and researcher in pediatric critical care. Being tapped to help lead Lurie Children’s, one of the nation’s crown jewels in pediatrics, and understanding the trust placed in him, he simply says, “I am humbled.”

Sometimes, Impatience Pays Off

Shanley calls himself “an impatient person,” a trait that actually makes him well-suited to critical care, where patients’ physiologic responses change rapidly. He is a quick thinker who changes care strategies as necessary to ensure optimal therapeutic responses.

“I think my impatience stems from being results-driven and competitive by nature. I like to see things happen quickly and successfully and efficiently,” he explains.

However, as a pediatrician and the father of four, he has learned the importance of patience and allowing time for patients’ health to be restored. 

He settled on pediatrics during his medical school and residency training because he saw kids repeatedly bounce back from difficult illnesses in contrast to adults, who often got sicker because they engaged in unhealthy behaviors. “I kind of like the ‘purity,’ if you will, of the children,” he says.

Unfortunately, not everything always ends well in the ICU. When a young life is cut too short, Dr. Shanley is dedicated to helping families through the tragic process.

Tiny Focus

In his youth, Shanley combatted psoriasis and bacteremia from an osteomyelitis infection and sought to understand what was happening on a cellular level. As a teenager, he was enamored with biology and knew he wanted to go into medicine.

Post-residency, he became disturbed and vexed when children died from sepsis. He felt that a piece of the puzzle was missing and pursued specific data about the function of the immune system that would be valuable in making treatment decisions. Mimicking the curiosity he had as a teen, the physician-researcher was spurred to understand how and why disease states progressed in young people.

Answers and solutions were developed over nearly two decades when he collaborated with researchers at three medical schools scrutinizing inflammatory responses and genomics. He and fellow Michigan scientists broke through last year with a micro-fluidic device that determines the state of the immune system’s functional response, provides a better prediction of outcomes and measures biomarkers in near real-time that could help investigators group patients in different clinical trials.

Currently in use at Mott Children’s Hospital, the device, roughly the size of a microscope slide, is a bedside diagnostic tool for intensivists. His team worked with mechanical engineers and computational analysts to develop the predictive blood assay test that measures cytokine levels, small proteins essential for cell signaling.

Micro-Fluidic Blood Assay Test

Diagram of the process used in the Micro-Fluidic Blood Assay Test developed by Shanley and colleagues.

Critically ill patients with inadequate immune system responses and consequently low cytokine levels are at high risk for organ failure. Similar approaches already in use require blood quantities too large for most pediatric patients to give.

“The amount you can take from a premature neonate is highly limited, so a device that requires only five micro-liters of blood to get analytic information is quite innovative and potentially transformative,” Shanley says.

Mott Children’s uses the device through Emergency Use Authorization issued by the FDA. Shanley plans to implement use of the device at Lurie Children’s and wants to save more lives and test it on a large-scale population nationwide.

Another related tool created with his Michigan team isolates cells in the blood and measures whether they are functioning normally. The device pinpoints which cells are abnormal so specific medications might be administered to correct them and bolster the patient’s immune system. This capability is critical for patients in the ICU who are often fighting off infections.

Destined for Northwestern

Maybe it was inevitable that Shanley would one day return to Northwestern.

Growing up in Glen Ellyn with Irish and Polish parents, he attended Benet Academy. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in chemistry from Carleton College, where he quarterbacked the Minnesota school’s football team and played baseball. 

He was admitted to Feinberg’s MD/PhD program but had to decline because he needed more financial support, which was not available at the time. He attended the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. About 15 years ago, he considered a position as chief of Critical Care at Children’s Memorial (now Lurie Children’s Hospital), but dropped out of the running because of the physical separation between the medical school and the pediatric research and hospital campuses.

In 2014, Northwestern and Shanley met again at the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS). Shanley and NUCATS connected because he sits on the steering committee of the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). Formed in 2012 to speed delivery of new treatments to patients, NCATS funds the Clinical Translational Science Award (CTSA) Consortium comprised of 62 academic medical centers.

All CTSA members, including NUCATS, received a nine-month NIH grant to standardize training for study teams to achieve Good Clinical Practice in clinical trials for academic medical centers and pharmaceutical companies, and implement a competency-based curriculum so errors are minimized. Shanley, who is co-PI of the national project, will hold the final meeting for this working group in September and estimates that recommendations will be released next year.

“We need a research workforce that can move things along the translational spectrum with high quality and efficiency. It is mind-boggling to me that we don’t have some standardization for training to conduct clinical trials,” he says. “This effort will accelerate the pace so that fundamental discoveries get to patients quicker.”

Molding Child Advocates

Shanley considers himself a kids’ advocate everywhere—at the bedside, in the lab, with families, and especially with legislators who make funding decisions about pediatric care and research.

“I view the care of our children as our future security from a national standpoint. I hope the faculty at Northwestern will continue to work with me in being a leading voice for children in Chicago and nationwide,” he says.

Dr. Thomas Shanley

Dr. Shanley high-fives a young Lurie Children’s patient.

Dr. Shanley instills that mission in residents, fellows and medical students, and has earned accolades for his above-and-beyond approach to pediatrics. Since 1993, he has received 10 teaching awards from residents and students at three medical schools. He wants his charges to understand care in inpatient and outpatient settings and across different socio-economic backgrounds.

Recently, he has emphasized teaching students to wade through data from electronic health records and real-time monitoring and pull relevant information for effective treatment plans. As an ICU physician, he is extensively experienced in team-based care and communication processes and will reinforce that model throughout pediatrics. 

Beyond Streeterville

Dr. Shanley is eager to leverage the entire network of the medical school and its clinical affiliates to bring better pediatric patient care and research. This includes taking advantage of increased opportunities between hospitals to conduct pediatric clinical trials and share advances in therapies. Adult critical care specialists are interested in discoveries that could potentially be adapted for older patients.

An ardent researcher who has published more than 100 papers, he will enhance collaboration in yet another leading role as chief research officer of the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute, the research arm of Lurie Children’s in Lincoln Park.

“We will be looking for opportunities to overlap clinical care with research programs so that new ways of care are moving from small, single-site studies into studies stretching throughout the network of Northwestern affiliates,” he says.

Dr. Shanley is a member of the Society for Pediatric Research and chaired its Pediatric Research Foundation for five years through 2014. He is currently one of two Society for Pediatric Research trustees to the International Pediatric Research Foundation. In 2018 and 2019, he will serve as program chair for the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting, the largest annual gathering of academic pediatricians across every subspecialty. He was also a member of the strategic planning group for the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch.

Stanley Manne Children's Research

A native Chicagoan, Dr. Thomas Shanley took on a leadership role at Lurie Children’s in August.

His plate is full, so wife Maureen, a pediatric nurse who headed Mott’s dialysis unit, is focused on making their new home in Lincoln Park. They devote spare time to their children—Lauren, 25, Molly, 22, Ashleigh, 21, and Matthew, 19—scattered throughout the country at work and universities.

Shanley makes decisions by surrounding himself with smart, well-informed people and listening to everyone’s perspectives, especially people at the front lines of care. “Then I do have to harken back to my quarterback days and be a leader who makes decisions, but my decisions are based on including everyone,” he explains.

In fact, Dr. Shanley takes his approach to medicine straight from a football playbook—quick thinking, innovative strategy and team mentality. “I have a great deal of satisfaction being able to preserve a life and work comprehensively with an effective team.”