December 06, 2011 | 01:15 AM
Glenview's Dr. Demetrius Maraganore is a man with big goals and even bigger dreams.
Under Maraganore's aggressive leadership, NorthShore University HealthSystems is to working to predict, prevent, and halt neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, ALS, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis through the development of DNA-based prognostic tests and therapies.
"We will be able to bring an end to neurological disorders," Maraganore said, who for two years has been the Ruth Cain Ruggles Chairman of the Department of Neurology and the Medical Director of the Neurological Institute at NorthShore University HealthSystem.
The centerpiece of the department's work is the "DodoNA Project," named after the ancient Greek oracle at Dodona, where priestesses would interpret the rustling of leaves in a sacred oak tree to determine what actions one should take.
The goal is to interpret subtle variations in DNA as a means to predict outcomes and to improve neurological health. To fulfill those aims, NorthShore is conducting studies of 11 neurological disorders (1,000 subjects each, 11,000 subjects total), including Parkinson's disease, mild cognitive impairment, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, stroke, migraine, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, brain tumors and traumatic brain injury.
"By developing predictive tests, whether those be DNA tests or other blood product tests or maybe even clinical information that can be pooled in a way that is more predictive," he said. "We want to figure out how to predict outcomes and modify outcomes."
Maraganore, 50, grew up in Skokie, the son of a pathologist and a midwife. He went to Loyola Academy and graduated from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, during which he worked for a time at Evanston Hospital.
He completed his internship and residency at the Mayo School of Graduate Medical Education, was awarded a fellowship with the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, and spent 24 highly acclaimed years at the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he was a Professor of Neurology and Chair of the Division of Movement Disorders. He was also the Principal Investigator of a large research team dedicated to discovering the genetic and environmental causes of Parkinson's disease and is recognized as one of world's leading experts on Parkinson's.
Two years ago, Dr. Nicholas Vick, the Emeritus Chair of the Department of Neurology at NorthShore, called Dr. Maraganore and told him "it's time to come home."
"He planted the hook, and didn't have to reel. I swam all the way to the boat," Maraganore said.
"It's been really wonderful moving back to this area," he said, who is active with the Saints Peter & Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Glenview and the National Hellenic Museum.
"I'm living five blocks from the Saints Peter and Paul, where I used to go as a kid," said Maraganore, who is married to Roberta Frigerio and has one child. "I'm down the road from Hackneys, where I used to work on my childhood obesity with great joy, and Meier's Tavern, where when I got a 5 on my AP English test my English teacher took me and bought me a burger, and Valley Lo, where I learned to play tennis poorly."
But it wasn't just the tater tots and Hackneyburgers that lured Maraganore back.
"I got really sick of 'me' when I was at the Mayo Clinic" he said. "I came to NorthShore because I was excited about 'we.' We have the opportunity here to do something very special because we have a bold vision and we are willing to take risks and we have a very generous community that is willing to support and invest in big bold visions."
Under his leadership, the department has grown from 24 neurologists to 35, including many internationally known and recognized leaders, and is now the largest in the Chicagoland area.
"This is largely what attracted me to this position: the opportunity to lead, the opportunity to be empowered, the opportunity to be resourced."
Maraganore is not without his frustrations.
"What I find discouraging is the overly cautious, overly conservative, overly competitive, overly incremental advancement of medical science," he said.
But ever the positive thinker, he is quick to turn that sentiment around.
Asked what he hopes to have accomplished in five years, Maraganore is quite specific.
"What I hope to see in terms of our own research is that we will have successfully developed the tools in our electronic medical record to allow us to collect in a systematic and standardized way information from routine office visits for at least 11,000 neurologic diseases," he said. "I want to see 11,000 samples sitting in a blood bank and I want to hear the doors knocking from the NIH, from the industry, from university scientists, saying 'you've got something that the rest of us didn't think to do and collect and we want to work with you to find the answers to these diseases'."
"In my view, that is realistic," he concluded with characteristic optimism. "I can never let go of that confidence."