Celebrating 2018

Looking back on an extraordinary year of scientific discovery.

The medley of research published by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine investigators in 2018 exemplifies what has been a banner year for discovery at the medical school. From fundamental new understandings of the cell published in Nature to landmark clinical trials in the New England Journal of Medicine and cross-disciplinary collaborations in Science Translational Medicine, scientists throughout the institution have advanced new knowledge that is already transforming their diverse fields.

In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, Feinberg principal investigators secured more than $484 million in sponsored research awards, a total that formed the majority of Northwestern University’s record-breaking year for research funding. In particular, the medical school’s growth reflects a 13 percent increase in funding from the National Institutes of Health.

“The high-impact discoveries made by Feinberg investigators this year reflect the continued growth of our extraordinary research enterprise. The publications we are highlighting here represent just a small sampling of the substantial contributions our faculty members led across a range of scientific disciplines in 2018,” said Rex Chisholm, PhD, vice dean for Scientific Affairs and Graduate Education. “As we look ahead to 2019 and the opening of the new Simpson Querrey Biomedical Research Center, I anticipate another year of groundbreaking research.”

Take a look back at a few of the exciting research stories that marked the past year at Northwestern.

Genetic Basis Uncovered for Glaucoma

Mice without the growth factor ANGPT1 or the angiopoietin receptor TIE2/TEK have severely deformed and small Schelmm’s canals. The signaling pathway is essential to form the drainage system of the eye to regulate intraocular pressure and prevent glaucoma. “These discoveries highlight the central role of this molecular pathway in glaucoma and provide sign posts guiding us to a new therapy,” said senior author Susan Quaggin, MD, the Charles H. Mayo, MD, Professor and chief of Nephrology and Hypertension in the Department of Medicine and director of the Feinberg Cardiovascular and Renal Research Institute. (Journal of Clinical Investigation)

Testosterone-linked Molecule Explains Gender Differences in MS

A guardian molecule induced by testosterone reverses the harmful immune response seen in multiple sclerosis (MS) and eliminates disease symptoms in female mice. The molecule appears to protect males, who have a lower incidence of the disease. “These findings could lead to an entirely new kind of therapy for MS, which we greatly need,” said lead study author Melissa Brown, PhD, professor of Microbiology-Immunology. (PNAS)

Scientists Identify Direct Contact Between Mitochondria and Lysosomes

Two key cellular structures, mitochondria and lysosomes, come into direct contact with each other to regulate their respective functions, a rare fundamental discovery about cell function. “It’s a surprising finding that provides new insights into normal cell function and will likely have implications for a number of diseases across the board,” said principal investigator Dimitri Krainc, MD, PhD, the Aaron Montgomery Ward Professor and chair of the Ken and Ruth Davee Department of Neurology. (Nature)

Immune Response May Contribute to Pediatric Epilepsy

Irregular concentrations of T-cells in the brain contribute to the development of seizures in pediatric epilepsy. The research suggests anti-inflammatory drugs should be considered for therapy, in addition to the anti-seizure drugs that are typically prescribed, according to senior author Stephen D. Miller, PhD, the Judy Gugenheim Research Professor of Microbiology-Immunology. (Journal of Experimental Medicine)

Scientists Develop New Tool to Study Nicotine Receptors

The creation of a novel light-activated nicotine compound provides a new technique to better understand the effects of nicotine on the brain. “Scientists interested in studying nicotine dependence or acetylcholine — the neurotransmitter that normally binds to ‘nicotine receptors’ — now have a fantastic tool that, when properly employed, may enable us to uncover fundamental principles of cholinergic transmission,” explained corresponding author Ryan M. Drenan, PhD, associate professor of Pharmacology. (Nature Methods)

New Clues Found in Cause of Early Lung Transplant Failure

Northwestern Medicine investigators uncovered the precise immune cells that flow into and harm the lung soon after a transplant. The study, which included animal models and human subjects, may lead to drug therapies that target the destructive cells that contribute to organ rejection, according to co-senior author Ankit Bharat, MD, the Harold L. & Margaret N. Method Research Professor of Surgery and surgical director of Northwestern Medicine lung transplantation. (The Journal of Clinical Investigation)


Resetting the Epigenetic Balance for Cancer Therapy

An epigenetic imbalance silences the expression of tumor-suppressing proteins, allowing cancerous cells to proliferate, but a molecular inhibitor reverses the imbalance and inhibits tumor growth in a lab model. “This is a simple molecular concept with major clinical significance,” said principal investigator Ali Shilatifard, PhD, Robert Francis Furchgott Professor and chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics and director of the Simpson Querrey Center for Epigenetics. (Nature Medicine)

Men With Aggressive Prostate Cancer May Get New Powerful Drug Option

An existing drug called enzalutamide significantly lowered the risk of metastasis or death for men with non-metastatic castrate-resistant prostate cancer and a rising PSA level, according to a large clinical trial. The study, led by Maha Hussain, MD, the Genevieve Teuton Professor of Medicine and deputy director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, may lead to a new treatment option for men with aggressive prostate cancer. (New England Journal of Medicine)

Skin Sensor Could Improve Life for a Million Hydrocephalus Patients

A new wireless, Band-Aid-like sensor could revolutionize the way patients manage hydrocephalus — a potentially life-threatening condition in which excess fluid builds up in the brain. “It’s a wearable device with a specific but useful mode of operation that’s addressing an unmet need in clinical medicine,” said John Rogers, PhD, professor of Neurological Surgery, who led the research with Matthew Potts, MD, assistant professor of Neurological Surgery. (Science Translational Medicine)

Simple Blood Test Reveals Body’s Internal Clock

A simple blood test can identify a person’s precise internal time clock as compared to the external time, for the first time offering scientists the opportunity to easily examine the impact of misaligned circadian clocks in a range of diseases, from heart disease to diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. It was developed by a team of Northwestern Medicine scientists, including Rosemary Braun, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of Preventive Medicine in the Division of Biostatistics, and Phyllis Zee, MD, PhD, chief of Sleep Medicine in Neurology. (PNAS)

Listen to the People Behind the Science

In 2018, Feinberg launched the Breakthroughs podcast, featuring interviews with many of the medical school’s top scientists. Subscribe now on iTunes, SoundCloud, Spotify or Google Play Music (just search “Feinberg School of Medicine” on any of those platforms to find the series).