News Release

NIH grant expands UIC brain bank into citywide effort to study epilepsy, brain cancer

Grant and Award Announcement

University of Illinois Chicago

A new virtual brain bank spanning five Chicago academic medical centers and led by University of Illinois Chicago will create a powerful new resource for clinical care and research on epilepsy, brain tumors and neurological disorders. 

A $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will create a network of brain tissue research at UIC, Northwestern University, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Rush University and University of Chicago. The institutions will utilize a data platform developed at UIC called INTUITION that combines tissue data with clinical, functional, genetic and 3D imaging information to assist clinicians treating patients and help researchers better understand the mechanisms of brain disorders.

Expanding the INTUITION platform and standardizing brain tissue collection and analysis across the five medical centers will unlock even more opportunities for discovery, said Dr. Jeffrey Loeb, the John S. Garvin Endowed Chair in Neurology at UIC, professor and head of neurology and rehabilitation in the College of Medicine and lead investigator on the project. 

“The goal is to turn big data into new therapeutics and biomarkers,” said Loeb, who is also co-director of the biomedical informatics core at the Center for Clinical and Translational Science. “The INTUITION platform is really a way that we can disseminate what we’ve done here at UIC to a larger population of researchers across the city of Chicago.” 

In 2017, UIC launched a NeuroRepository to collect and preserve brain tissue surgically removed from patients to treat epilepsy or taken in tumor biopsies. But gathering this valuable tissue is only one piece of the puzzle. To maximize the clinical and research potential, insights from studying the tissue itself must be combined with 3D images and electrical measurements of brain activity, clinical records on the patients’ history and symptoms and data on genetics and other cellular factors. 

To integrate all this data into a single system, NeuroRepository team members built INTUITION, a software platform that automatically gathers these disparate data types and combines them into user-friendly interfaces for clinicians and researchers. Neurologists can use the platform to make decisions about surgical treatment for patients, and UIC scientists use its database to gain insights into how seizures start and how to prevent them

“In traditional research, we often pick one thing to study at a time: an X-ray, or a medical record. But most of the data that we use in clinical practice is multimodal, and all these data are usually siloed from each other,” Loeb said. “We thought if we develop software that’s actually helpful to physicians caring for patients, we will also have highly curated data for research.” 

Today, the NeuroRepository contains tissue samples from over 200 patients, which enables researchers to look for common factors across individuals that cause epilepsy and could be targets for new treatment approaches. Bringing INTUITION to other medical centers will dramatically increase that number, enabling larger-scale studies in a more diverse patient population including both adult and pediatric cases. 

To ensure the consistency of the data across sites, the project will include educational training to coordinate and standardize procedures for tissue collection and data processing at each location. The INTUITION platform also will be modified to allow federated data sharing — a computational method where researchers can securely query de-identified data stored by different institutions while protecting patient privacy.  

“With a federated platform, you can send a probe to each of those sites and ask a question without actually moving any data,” Loeb said. “If you want to look at certain imaging patterns or outcome measures or tissue histologies from patients who have the following age range and types of seizures, you can see what’s available, you can run a federated query and have a result from five sites as opposed to one.” 

The first stage of the five-year project will focus on gathering data on temporal lobe epilepsy, establishing INTUITION at the other sites and modifying the platform to best serve clinicians and researchers at all five centers of the network. The second phase will expand its use to study brain tumors and make further improvements to scale the virtual brain bank beyond Chicago. 

“You need to test it with multiple programs, with adults and kids, and fix the interface to make it work for different people,” Loeb said. “In the end, we hope we will have a platform that will be robust and can be used at any epilepsy surgery program in the country or the world.” 

INTUITION development was supported by funding from the Discovery Partners Institute to create I-BRAIN, an initiative exploring commercialization opportunities around brain tissue data and research. Other UIC researchers on the project include G. Elisabeta Marai, professor of computer science; Dr. Anna SerafiniBiswajit Maharathi, Fozia Mir and Dr. Ahmad Daher from the department of neurology and rehabilitation; Dr. Francesco Pucci from the department of neurosurgery; and Dr. Tibor Valyi-Nagy from the department of pathology.

Written by Rob Mitchum


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