The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recognized the exemplary work of Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist John Harley, M.D., Ph.D., with its prestigious MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) award. The multi-year award will provide more than $1.8 million to fund Harley’s research on the genetics of the autoimmune disease lupus.
According to the NIH, MERIT awards are given to “support impressive records of scientific achievement in research areas of special importance or promise.” Only a select group of NIH-funded researchers receive such awards.
The award will fund Harley’s lupus genetics studies for up to 10 years. By offering long-term, stable support free of the administrative burdens associated with preparing and submitting grant applications, the award encourages scientists to take more risks, explore more adventurous research avenues and hone new research techniques.
“There’s nothing quite like this award in American science, and it buttresses what many of us already knew—that John Harley’s work holds tremendous value to the U.S. research community,” said OMRF President J. Donald Capra, M.D. “He has made crucial contributions to understanding a notoriously misunderstood disease, and this award will give him the resources and the freedom to continue to track the genetic roots of lupus.”
Since joining OMRF in 1982, Harley has been studying lupus, which is estimated to affect up to 1.5 million Americans and can be fatal. The disease can strike any part of the body—it most commonly attacks the joints, skin and kidneys—and has no known cure.
Harley’s work has focused on the genetics of lupus and has played a major role in identifying a pair of genes that may be responsible for causing the disease. His lab has also pinpointed more than 20 separate genetic effects of lupus.
“If we could identify the genes that control whether a person is predisposed to lupus, we could learn why only a small fraction of the population develops the disease,” said Harley. “And this information would be the keystone for formulating new and more effective treatments for lupus.”
In 1994, Harley created the Lupus Multiplex Registry and Repository, a collection of biological samples from families in which multiple members suffer from lupus. The collection, which is the largest of its kind in the world, provides a crucial resource for lupus researchers around the globe and has served as the keystone for countless research projects.
In 2003, Harley and his OMRF colleague Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., drew worldwide media attention when they published a watershed lupus study in The New England Journal of Medicine. The research revealed that certain telltale antibodies appear in the blood years before patients show any outward symptoms of lupus. This discovery should help speed physicians’ ability to detect and clinically intervene against the disease.
“What sets Dr. Harley apart is not only his incisive, tireless intellect, but also his sense of teamwork, his willingness to share ideas and data with any scientist who might benefit from them,” said Capra. “I can think of no one more deserving of this honor.”
Harley earned his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2004, he was the principal investigator on seven different NIH awards, more than any other researcher in Oklahoma.
Harleys heads the Arthritis and Immunology Research Program at OMRF (www.omrf.org), a nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding and curing human disease. For over half a century, OMRF’s scientists have focused on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease.
In addition to his position at OMRF, Harley also holds appointments at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, where he serves as a professor and chief of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology.