The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation has received a $13.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the toxin that causes anthrax. The grant will pay $2.76 million a year through 2009 and is the largest ever awarded to an Oklahoma institution to fund bioterrorism research.With this grant, nine scientists will explore natural immune responses to Bacillus anthracis, the infectious agent that causes anthrax. The ultimate goal of these studies is to help develop more effective vaccines, diagnostic tools and treatments for those infected with the potentially lethal pathogen.
“The letter attacks of 2001 opened this country’s eyes to the threat of anthrax,” said OMRF President J. Donald Capra, M.D., the grant’s principal investigator. “This grant provides OMRF with an opportunity to use its strength in immunology as a weapon in the fight against bioterrorism.”
Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by spore-forming bacteria that naturally occur in cattle, sheep and other herbivores. It can be transmitted to humans by inhalation, skin infection or the consumption of undercooked meat from infected animals. In the fall of 2001, letters filled with inhalation anthrax spores killed five people and made 17 others ill.
Under the grant, investigators will engage in a wide array of projects. For instance, OMRF’s Mark Coggeshall, Ph.D., working in conjunction with Jimmy Ballard, M.D., of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, will examine why the body’s natural defense mechanisms fail to neutralize or inhibit the toxin that causes inhalation anthrax.
“The bacteria are taken up by the cells in the lung called macrophages, which normally kill infectious bacteria,” said Coggeshall. “In the case of anthrax, the macrophages fail to kill the bacteria. Our hope is to find out why this happens so that we can protect the macrophages and allow them to go about their job of killing the bacteria that cause anthrax.”
The grant will also fund the following research projects:
- OMRF’s Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., and Darise Farris, Ph.D., will examine the body’s production of antibodies in response to anthrax infection.
- Jordan Tang, Ph.D. (OMRF), will team up with Jordan Metcalf, M.D. (OUHSC), with the goal of developing treatments that prevent the spores from attacking cells in the body.
- Shinichiro Kurosawa, M.D., Ph.D. (OMRF), will investigate the use of activated protein C to treat anthrax.
- John Harley, M.D., Ph.D. (OMRF/OUHSC/VA Medical Center), will study ways in which to make vaccines for anthrax safer.
“This grant unites OMRF’s leading scientists in a single mission,” said Capra. “With their combined expertise, I’m confident we will make significant headway against this deadly disease.”
Capra noted that the form of anthrax used in this project, known as the Sterne strain, is not harmful to humans. This non-virulent strain lacks dangerous infectious segments of the anthrax molecule called plasmids and is commonly used to vaccinate livestock against the disease.
The $13.8 million award represents the largest grant in OMRF’s 58-year history and the second largest National Institutes of Health grant in state history. OMRF beat out roughly two dozen other medical research institutions that also competed for the grant.
“Winning a grant of this magnitude against competition from across the country is a coup for OMRF and for Oklahoma,” Capra said. “I am very proud of our scientists.”
Chartered in 1946, OMRF (www.omrf.org) is a nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understand and curing human disease. Its scientists focus on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease. OMRF is home to Oklahoma’s only member of the National Academy of Sciences.