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Transforming Our Understanding of Human Biology

Led by Professor Shana Kelley, the new Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Chicago will bring together multi-institutional, interdisciplinary researchers to better understand the biological processes that drive inflammation and disease.

Chan Zuckerburg Biohub building

More than half of all deaths in the world today are attributed to diseases driven by chronic inflammation, from cancer to stroke to heart disease to diabetes.

Northwestern Engineering's Shana Kelley is determined to better understand why.

Kelley, Neena B. Schwartz Professor of Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering, will lead and serve as president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Chicago (CZ Biohub Chicago), a new research hub supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) that will develop new technologies for studying human tissues with unprecedented resolution.

Northwestern will co-lead CZ Biohub Chicago with the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The hub's goal is to unite the region's best researchers to improve understanding of inflammation, potentially leading to new treatments for the inflammatory conditions that underlie disease.

CZI selected the Chicago team from a pool of 58 teams after a yearlong, highly competitive application process for a research initiative explicitly focused on measuring human biology.

"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," Kelley says. "The scientific challenge we're exploring— to develop new tools to better measure tissues and gain insights into inflammation—has large engineering challenges to surmount, and is wildly, but not impossibly, ambitious—and can only be solved by interdisciplinary collaboration."


Shana Kelley's Lab: New Technologies for Disease Biology.


Building a national network

The Chicago site is the first expansion of the CZ Biohub Network, which launched in 2021. The network builds off the successful model of the CZ Biohub in San Francisco, launched in 2016. Located in Chicago's Fulton Market neighborhood, CZ Biohub Chicago is scheduled to open in early 2024 and include 28,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratories, meeting spaces, faculty-in-residence space, a biofoundry, and other sophisticated instrumentation.

"We are excited to scale this successful model of collaborative science into a larger network by welcoming the new Biohub inChicago," CZI cofounder and co-CEO Priscilla Chan says. "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."

Professor Shana Kelley

Using sensors to study human tissues

To explore inflammation, CZ Biohub Chicago will develop engineering technologies to make precise, molecular-level measurements of biological processes within human tissues. This work will include embedding thousands of sensors and sampling probes into human tissues. With this technology, scientists will be able to monitor molecular and cellular signals in real time, revealing how disruptions in these processes lead to inflammation and disease. By monitoring tissues in real time, the researchers aim to steer the immune system away from the "tipping points" that lead to inflammatory disorders. The work promises to broadly enable new discoveries across all areas of medicine.

"The CZ Biohub Chicago will become a global destination for performing these types of experiments," says Milan Mrksich, Henry Wade Rogers Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Northwestern's former vice president for research. "By collaborating across universities, we have assembled an absolute 'dream team' of researchers with unmatched scientific skills and talent that enabled us to compete at the highest levels. The hub will be known as a place where discoveries are made and fields are transformed—and it will better position Chicago as an environment for life science translation and entrepreneurship."

During the application process, Mrksich assembled the multi-institutional team to develop its vision for the hub. Northwestern Engineering faculty members on the planning committee included Mrksich, Kelley, Guillermo Ameer, Horacio Espinosa, and John A. Rogers.

The CZ Biohub Chicago will work with CZI teams, including its 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.

"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," CZI cofounder and co-CEOMark Zuckerberg says. "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."

Photography by Crystal Wiley-Brown (Shana Kelley) and Robert Buyle Photography (Building)