STREETERVILLE — The research facility that Northwestern University is planning to build in place of Prentice Hospital will allow for a significant increase in research involving animal testing.
The university in November rejected a proposal to refurbish the hospital building because it would yield only about 34,000 square feet of vivarium space, which includes housing for research animals and storage of food and other material related to animal testing.
According to a Prentice evaluation by an independent consulting firm, Northwestern's goal was to dedicate 20 percent of the building's 170,000 square feet of usable space to animal housing for testing and research.
NU has since mapped out a plan for a new building on the Prentice site of between 300,000 and 500,000 square feet to be constructed by 2015, 55 to 65 percent of which would be usable space, according to Jacobs Consultancy, which prepared the Prentice report.
If the ratio of vivarium space to usable space stays somewhat constant, that would provide for a vivarium between 33,000 and 65,000 actual square feet.
Northwestern already has 100,141 square feet of dedicated animal housing and support space, which in 2011 housed 872 animals used for research purposes, including 417 rabbits, 88 dogs, 70 cats, 16 "non-human primates" (i.e., monkeys) and 115 "other" animals, according to the USDA.
If the university builds vivarium space consistent with their publicly stated square footage needs, their research departments could stand to increase its animal research capacity by up to 65 percent.
Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage said that ratios in the Prentice evaluations won't translate directly to the new, larger building.
But several sources present at a closed door meeting between the university and preservation advocates told DNAinfo.com that Northwestern representatives repeatedly stated that 40,000 to 60,000 square feet of vivarium space would be necessary in the new facility.
The standard vivarium-to-total-research-facility-space is 15 percent, John Mammoser wrote in the assessment by Rolf Jensen and Associates, Inc., but Northwestern requested a greater proportion to accommodate overflow from the nearby Lurie Medical Research Center, which "would be over-subscribed when the second phase of that building is completed."
The Lurie Medical Research Center at 303 E. Superior St. currently houses a 70,000 square foot vivarium.
Cubbage said the neighborhood group Streeterville Organization of Active Residents (SOAR) backed the plans the university presented "in 2004 or 2005," and signed off on an assessment presented in 2011.
He said plans for the new building aren't finalized, saying "we haven't done the design of the new building yet."
Cubbage said the university's research team is growing quickly, to the point that the school has "more researchers coming to the university than there are labs."
"Lurie, which was built probably 8 or 10 years ago, is pretty well filled up," Cubbage said. "We're running out of space in the building that's really quite new."
In April 2010, the Humane Society of the United States announced it had obtained government reports detailing violations at NU's laboratories including "failing to properly euthanize animals and failing to obtain proper approval for procedures that resulted in harm to animals."
Dr. Robyn Barbiers, president of the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago, said that animal testing carries very similar sanitation standards to any other form of biomedical research. She predicted that changes in the type and volume of research in Streeterville won't have any noticeable impact on the community.
But from an ethical standpoint, Barbiers said the society advocates for reduction in animal use whenever possible.
"Unfortunately there are legitimate reasons for using animal research," Barbiers said. "But [we believe] there should be a lot of regulations and guidelines to make sure that there are no other alternatives, that they're using the smallest number of animals, the most suitable species, cared for in the most humane manner possible."
The university has a long history of backing research that produces significant medical and pharmaceutical breakthroughs, including recent, early-stage successes with a drug that could slow the progression of Parkinson's Disease.
Cubbage said the facility expansion is a necessary ingredient in the city and the university's shared goal of making Chicago "a hub for biomedical research, entrepreneurial science and startups."
"We're really trying to do work that is beneficial to society, and we want to do more of it," Cubbage said.