Inheriting the Building Blocks for a Brighter Future


Pictured above: the CGM’s cryopreservation services, introduced in 2007. This process of freezing germplasm for stable, long-term storage in liquid nitrogen is a safe method for preserving viable pre-implantation embryos or sperm that can be easily recovered to revive a mouse line. Photo courtesy of Lynn Doglio.

Center for Genetic Medicine’s 17 Years of Growth

Founded in 2000 with just a few faculty, Northwestern’s Center for Genetic Medicine (CGM) has grown in size and significance paralleling expanded comprehension of the human body’s 25,000 genes. The CGM was formed at a time when exciting advances in genetics were being made: Dolly the sheep had only recently been cloned (1997) and the Human Genome Project to identify and map all of the genes in the human body was still underway (it was completed in 2003).

The idea to create a genetics center started to take shape under Dean Harvey Colten, MD (1997 to 1999), who planned to create both an institute and department for genetics. He put together a large search committee to find leadership for the project, but stepped down before the search was completed. The following dean, Lewis Landsberg, MD (1999 to 2007), created a committee chaired by J. Larry Jameson, MD, PhD (dean 2007 to 2010), to advise if that plan should be continued. They recommended that an institute be created initially, and on September 1, 2000, Rex Chisholm, PhD, became founding director of the new Center for Genetic Medicine.

While Chisholm was director (2000-2007), the center grew immensely. One initiative, announced in October 2002, was the NUgene Project, a genomic biobank collaboration between Feinberg and its clinical affiliates. NUgene was launched to use information from the human genome sequence to unravel the genetic cause of many diseases and eventually help scientists develop new tests, determine which patients would respond best to a particular drug and develop therapies to fight specific illnesses. This would be accomplished by collecting thousands of DNA samples and related health information to search out “candidate genes” believed to play a role in disease, ascertain their role in the disease process and determine, based on an individual’s genetic information and medical history, which therapies would be most effective. By January 2004, NUgene had enrolled their 1,000th patient, and today it has over 13,000 patient samples in its repository.

By the time Chisholm stepped down to become the vice dean for scientific affairs and graduate education for Feinberg, the CGM included 120 faculty across 18 departments.

In the fall of 2007, during the interim directorship of Peter Kopp, MD, ’00 GME (2007-2014), Northwestern was chosen as one of five initial sites for the National Institutes of Health funded national Electronic Medical Records and Genomics (eMERGE) Network. eMERGE was created to incorporate DNA biorepository data with electronic medical record systems for large-scale, high-throughput genetic research. Currently, eMERGE has completed its first two phases examining what elements are needed to implement genome-informed personalized medicine, and it now is focused on continued development of best practices and strategies for analysis and distribution of genomic data for patients.

On September 1, 2014, Elizabeth McNally, MD, PhD, Elizabeth J Ward Professor of Genetic Medicine, became the new CGM director under current dean Eric Neilson, MD. McNally has conducted numerous studies to identify genetic indicators of hereditary heart disease. With her expertise, a new clinical cardiac genetics program was inaugurated, based in the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, involving Northwestern in yet another area of genetics research.

Today, under McNally’s leadership the CGM continues to grow. It currently includes more than 150 faculty members from 28 departments and three schools. In addition to NUgene, the CGM oversees two core facilities, which provide expert advice and state-of-the-art technology to scientists at Northwestern and other Chicago institutions: The NUSeq Core Facility provides full next-generation sequencing and bioinformatic analysis to Northwestern faculty, giving clinicians and investigators access to DNA and RNA sequencing, genotyping, epigenetic profiling, and the Transgenic and Targeted Mutagenesis Laboratory helps create gene-edited animal models for human disease using the newly discovered tools of CRISPR/Cas9.

In addition to research resources, the CGM has an educational focus, as the home for the Master’s in Genetic Counseling program, now the second-largest graduate program of this type in the United States. The CGM also educates the general public through the biannual Silverstein Lectures and the medical community through the annual Richard A. Scott, MD, Lecture Series.

As personalized medicine becomes ever more precise, the importance of genetics research in medicine cannot be understated. As the cost of whole genome sequencing decreases and accuracy improves, individual genetics is playing a larger role in the treatment and prevention of human disease. How will the next 17 years of genetic breakthroughs affect the direction of the CGM’s future growth? One thing is certain: Northwestern will continue to be a leader in this innovative arena of research.