Northwestern Discoveries Overturn Old Thinking

All scientists dream of producing new knowledge. Every study in its own way contributes to this aim, but some research also leads to breakthroughs that fundamentally shift the entire direction of a field. At Feinberg, we’ve cultivated a unique research enterprise that allows scientists to make just those kinds of paradigm-changing insights.

We have built an environment that gives investigators the freedom and the infrastructure to explore novel ideas, pursue interdisciplinary collaborations and follow unexpected conclusions, because we know that exceptional discoveries happen when scientists take creative approaches to tackle old problems in new ways. Our efforts have led to a remarkable record of noteworthy findings; our scientists are truly forging new paths in their disciplines. Let me share just a few examples.

In one recent study, our investigators debunked a paradox that long flummoxed clinicians: People diagnosed with cardiovascular disease (CVD) live longer if they are overweight or obese compared with people who are normal weight when diagnosed. Sadiya Khan, MD, assistant professor of Medicine in Cardiology, and her team looked at this association in a new way — from a lifespan perspective — and demonstrated that people who are obese do not live longer; they’re simply diagnosed at a younger age. The findings cleared up confusion pertinent to millions of people who are overweight or obese.

At Feinberg, we’ve cultivated a unique research enterprise that allows scientists to make just those kinds of paradigm-changing insights.

Our chair of Medicine, Doug Vaughan, MD, has spent 30 years studying a protein overexpressed in CVD called PAI-1. When his team noticed that PAI-1 is created as cells age, they decided to pursue it. The work led to astonishing conclusions: Overexpression of the protein in mouse models accelerates aging, while an Amish population in Indiana with low levels of the protein is protected against multiple aspects of biological aging. Vaughan and colleagues are now developing a promising new drug to inhibit the protein and prolong the healthy lifespan of people.

Melissa Brown, PhD, professor of Microbiology-Immunology, uncovered insights that may guide greatly needed new treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS) by studying the disease in a way nobody had before. Her team isolated sex differences in the disease and explained why women are much more likely to get MS than men: A guardian molecule triggered by testosterone appears to protect male mice from the disease.

Sue Quaggin, MD, chief of Nephrology and Hypertension, exposed genetic defects that lead to glaucoma in children by focusing on a drainage vessel in the eye called the canal of Schlemm, and she’s well on the way to developing new small molecule drugs to fix this vessel and attenuate the disease.

Sanjiv Shah, MD, assistant professor of Medicine in Cardiology, mined big data while studying patients suffering from heart failure with preserved ejection fraction. He uncovered three distinct types of patients, each requiring different treatment protocols rather than the standard one-size-fits-all approach. Today, these patients receive better, tailored therapies thanks to Shah’s work.

Our scientists are also making other discoveries that defy common conceptions. The laboratory of Dimitri Krainc, MD, PhD, chair of Neurology, recently reported that mitochondria and lysosomes talk to each other directly, a rare fundamental finding about normal cell function that will likely have implications for many diseases.

Kathleen Green, PhD, professor of Pathology and Dermatology, has been a trailblazer in research elucidating the function of molecules called desmosomes traditionally known for physically holding cells together. Green has shown that these proteins may also be involved in signaling that regulate the immune system, melanoma and heart disease.

And Ali Shilatifard, PhD, chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, has spent decades pursuing ideas on how chromosomal translocation and the epigenetic misregulation of gene expression cause childhood leukemia. His unconventional thinking was controversial at first; now he is leading one of the field’s most promising routes for future cancer therapeutics.

Innovative thinking drives us to keep learning and to refuse to accept incomplete answers. Such efforts yield better explanations that improve therapies clinicians need for their patients. Our investigators are challenging some of the existing understandings of disease and their diagnosis and treatment to create better paradigms for clinicians and scientists around the world to follow. Our track record to date has been impressive, but I am confident that even bigger successes lay in the future.

With warm regards,

Eric G. Neilson, MD
Vice President for Medical Affairs
Lewis Landsberg Dean