Some of the best research minds in the world quietly work each day at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford, doing both medical and applied research while teaching their skills.
Since it opened in 1971, the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford has trained more than 1,700 physicians.
“Nearly half of them practice in Illinois and 249 remain in the Rockford area,” says Regional Dean Alex Stagnaro-Green, MD, MHPE.
Aside from daily classes, what else happens at the campus on Parkview Avenue?
The answer is many things, including several kinds of critically important research that impact us locally as well as globally.
Local organizations, both public and private, hire the college to conduct research they need to make sound policy and market decisions and to satisfy legal requirements or funding requests. And the entire world looks to the kind of medical research being done here to solve our most pressing health challenges.
“People who follow medical research see that we have a pretty amazing record here,” says Department Head of Biomedical Sciences Dr. Ramaswamy Kalyanasundaram, who came to the campus in 1993. His faculty members are national leaders in the science of autoimmune disease, cancer biology and therapy, obesity genetics, regenerative medicine for the disabled and vaccine development. His department even has a mechanical engineer-turned-doctor working to develop better materials for joint replacements.
“We’re researchers, but we’re also teachers showing the next generation how to conduct research,” says Dr. Sherry Falsetti, assistant dean of research and director of the Division of Health Policy and Social Science Research. “Our mentors did this for us and we’re keeping it going.”
A Desperately Needed Vaccine
Vaccine development is Ramaswamy’s personal passion. Over many years, he and his team have developed a desperately needed vaccine to treat people infected with lymphatic filariasis, which causes severe lymphedema disfigurement, the second-most widespread disability in the world.
People suffering from lymphedema have an arm, leg or other body part that swells with fluid to many times its normal size, often leaving them unable to work and support their families. More than 120 million people in 72 countries suffer from this mosquito-borne tropical disease.
Ramaswamy’s vaccine recently proved 50 percent effective in non-human primate trials but he wants to reach an 80 percent success rate before it’s patented and released.
“It’s looking very good,” he says. He’s working with a group in India to set up human clinical trials. His work is supported by a $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main funding source for medical research in the U.S.
This is just one type of research happening in the Biomedical Sciences department, and it’s not the only department on campus conducting research.
PTSD & Mental Health
Falsetti, a licensed clinical psychologist, came here 11 years ago from the National Crime Victims Research & Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, where she earned her postdoctorate degree and served on faculty for 10 years. During that time, she researched Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), focusing on women who’d suffered traumatic events.
Falsetti developed a treatment named Multiple Channel Exposure Therapy that simultaneously addresses PTSD and panic attacks. It’s now being tested by the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) Research & Development Department for treatment of traumatized military veterans at a VA hospital in Houston. She also developed the Modified PTSD Symptom Scale now used in 35 countries and translated into 17 languages.
Falsetti’s PTSD work followed her to Rockford, where research continues.
“Today it may seem like old news that PTSD is a real disorder that wreaks havoc on peoples’ lives, but at the time we started the research, this wasn’t well understood,” she explains. “We’re used to thinking of combat veterans having PTSD, but now we recognize that other people suffer from it, too, such as crime victims, first responders, even people who’ve been in severe car accidents.”
All research comes with layers of bureaucratic hurdles to jump, including a lot of time spent on grant writing proposals, but the end result makes it worthwhile, says Falsetti.
“When I worked with women who had suffered severe trauma and I saw that this treatment was helping them get back to living normal lives, that was incredibly rewarding to me,” she says.
Falsetti recently completed a study with NCI Pearson, a company which develops testing programs such as the General Educational Development (GED). This study evaluated the feasibility and acceptability of an online mental health assessment that provides doctors with patient information before patients arrive for their office visit. Rockford was one of four sites selected for this study. The idea is to help primary care physicians identify potential mental health issues in patients prior to a visit so that they’re not missed.
While Ramaswamy’s and Falsetti’s projects are mainly funded by the NIH, the state and industry sources, funding from local foundations also plays a vital role in research.
The largest and most recent example is a $3 million donation from the CWB Foundation, matched by the university, for the purpose of establishing a Regenerative Medicine and Disability laboratory at the Rockford campus. The late Cedric W. Blazer, former president of Rockford’s Zenith Cutter Co., was a champion for persons with disabilities.
“Cell regeneration research seeks an understanding of how human cells create and renew themselves,” Ramaswamy explains. “It focuses on attempting to cure or ease the suffering of persons afflicted by heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.”
A $1 million lab for regeneration research was completed this year. Dr. Xue-Jun Li and team will study embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells and differentiate them into motor neurons; the long-term goal is to transplant these motor neurons into patients disabled by spinal cord injuries or diseases. Li’s group also is screening a library of natural compounds to identify agents that can promote nerve regeneration.
“The embryonic stem cells are already available through the NIH, so there’s no collecting embryos or anything like that, no red flags,” Ramaswamy notes.
Elsewhere in the Regenerative Medicine lab, Dr. Mathew Mathew-Thoppil is researching various causes of replacement hip, knee and jaw joint corrosions. “He’s also interested in studying ways to regenerate the joint tissues to increase the longevity of the joint transplants,” Ramaswamy explains.
The need for better joint replacement materials that can withstand the moist conditions of the human body for long durations is widely acknowledged among orthopedic professionals. Interestingly, Mathew-Thoppil holds a PhD in mechanical engineering; his research is funded by grants from NIH, the Blazer Foundation and the National Science Foundation.
Cancer & Autoimmune Research
Two kinds of cancer research are underway in the Biomedical Sciences department, as well.
“Dr. Gnanasekar Munirathinam has a background in molecular biology,” says Ramaswamy. “He’s studying compounds in natural medicines and their impact on cancer cells.” Compounds found in orange juice, licorice, Vitamin K2 and antioxidants derived from honeysuckle bushes are a few of the materials he has studied so far, and the research has turned up some promising results.
He also has worked with a Chicago pathologist to study the relationship between heavy metals and cancer. Munirathinam found that people who work directly with the soil, who are therefore regularly exposed to cadmium, have a higher incidence of cancer. Having proved this theory, his team is seeking more NIH funding to expand its work. The local Brovember Inc. charity, begun by Rockford barber Dave Armstrong to support prostate cancer research, helps to fund this research.
Developing early diagnostic tests, tumor biomarkers to predict patient prognosis, and novel therapies for lung cancer are major focus areas of research conducted by Dr. Neelu Puri, in collaboration with all of our region’s local hospitals. Her study is funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois and NIH. Puri also is promoting early screening of lung cancer, using low-dose computed tomography (LDCT), which was recently approved by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) to help improve the prognosis of lung cancer patients in our community. She actively works with smokers and physicians to promote her cause.
“This is extremely important work because by the time most people are diagnosed with lung cancer, they’re in late stages of it and the prognosis is not good,” says Ramaswamy. “The Chicago Cancer Center is very excited about her work because nobody in Chicago is developing a test for early screening of lung cancer and prognostic tumor biomarkers. Her hope is to come up with this early diagnostic tool soon and patent it.”
Puri also works to develop therapies for skin and lung cancers. “She’s not interested in all lung cancers but in the kinds that are most resistant to other treatments,” Ramaswamy explains. “When people are not responding to treatment, she can take cell samples and suggest combinations of drugs that may be effective.”
Puri’s research shows that residents in Winnebago County have a higher rate of lung cancer than the national average and that veterans and military service personnel have a higher rate than civilians.
In still another area of research, Dr. Aoshuang Chen and Dr. Guoxing Zheng are developing a new immunotherapy for patients afflicted by autoimmune diseases. Their studies with mice have shown that obesity is a major predisposing factor for both Type II diabetes and atherosclerosis patients. Their new, patented technology aims to reverse the pathology caused by these diseases.
Supporting & Promoting Research
Ramaswamy’s department administers a graduate program in medical biotechnology, in which 49 students are currently enrolled. Most of the students do independent research in the U of I Medicine and Pharmacy colleges. The department also supports the efforts of other medical students who participate in faculty research projects. The students conduct research as independent investigators, Craig Fellows or James Scholars.
The U of I College of Medicine at Rockford promotes the field of research to undergrad college students each summer through a program called SMaRT – Summer Medical Research Training. It also teams up with ThermoFisher Scientific of Rockford to offer the annual High School Summer Science Research Program.
This summer, the Biomedical Sciences department will offer a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math one-week Summer Science Research Camp to area high school students.
Along with conducting its own direct research, Falsetti’s Health Policy and Social Science Research department houses Health Systems Research (HSR), established by now-retired Joel Cowen in the 1970s. Public and private bodies such as school districts, nonprofits, hospitals or county health departments hire HSR to perform objective applied research, such as market analyses or reports required for grant applications. For example, HSR recently conducted an online survey of households about West Nile Virus awareness for McHenry County Health Department.
While research is not the main concern of most students training to be doctors on the campus, participating in research projects is an invaluable experience for them, says Falsetti.
“For one thing, doctors are better at sorting through all the latest research that’s continually thrown at them if they’ve had hands-on experience in research methodologies,” she says. “For another thing, having some research background on your resume helps to distinguish you when it’s time to apply for competitive positions.”
Working with students and performing research are richly rewarding experiences for researchers like Falsetti and Ramaswamy.
Their lives are making a difference and they know it.
“It’s the role we play in reaching that ultimate goal of benefitting patients, whether it’s through cancer research, making a better joint replacement or developing a needed vaccine, that really gives us great satisfaction,” says Ramaswamy. “If this one vaccine I’m working on comes to pass and saves one patient from suffering that terrible disease, my life is worthwhile.”
Research Funding: A Growing Challenge
Even though research is essential to human progress and steadily contributes billions of dollars to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the challenge of funding it looms larger and larger.
“The climate is so bad right now, as far as research funding goes,” says Dr. Ramaswamy Kalyanasdundaram, head of the Biomedical Sciences Department at University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford. “When I first came here in 1993, 25 out of 100 grants we applied for were funded. Now it’s eight out of every 100.”
Congress hasn’t increased the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget to keep pace with demand, or even to keep pace with the percentage of GDP growth, and more people than ever are applying for grants, says Dr. Sherry Falsetti, assistant dean of research and director of the Division of Health Policy and Social Science Research at the college of medicine.
Because the NIH is forced to dole out fewer and smaller grants, applicants have resorted to generating many more applications in hopes that one will “stick.” The result is less time spent on research, more time spent on paperwork and a growing restlessness among bright young scientists who wonder if it’s wise to enter the field of research.
The public should be concerned about this, says Ramaswamy. Great minds are being lost to other fields and to other countries.
Existing research is most likely to receive NIH funds, making it all the more difficult for new research proposals to move forward, according to Elias Zerhouni, former NIH director. “The current generation of rising scientists will find it particularly hard to fund their research projects,” he stated, after Congress in 2013 imposed sequestration measures that will impact the NIH for many years to come.
Less money means less research, even for the most horrific diseases. “You have to cut back on what you can do,” Ramaswamy says. “You can’t hire people.”
“To live with such instability in funding projects from one phase to the next isn’t conducive to bringing people into the research field,” says Falsetti. “On the other hand, the work itself can be enormously rewarding.”