The National Institutes of Health has awarded two grants worth a total of $26.3 million to OMRF for research into anthrax and to help train new scientists. Each grant will allow scientists to continue research started in 2004 and 2005 and keep them working through 2014 on several interconnected projects.
In the first project, a $14.5 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, seven scientists will spend the next five years exploring the natural immune responses to Bacillus anthracis, the infectious agent that causes anthrax.
“Inhalation anthrax is a dangerous disease with a mortality rate of more than 50 percent,” said OMRF’s Mark Coggeshall, Ph.D., the principal investigator on the project. “We don’t understand why the disease is so deadly. We want to learn everything about anthrax bacteria: how it gets from the lung to the blood, what happens when it’s in the blood, and how to produce and stop the bacteria with the right antibodies.”
The grant covers three specific projects at OMRF:
- Coggeshall will study how components of the anthrax bacteria contribute to the sepsis-like features that infected people show.
- Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., will investigate antibody response to the anthrax vaccine to learn what constitutes a “good” antibody, who makes good antibodies, and whether antibodies gathered from vaccinated soldiers can protect animals from being infected by anthrax.
- John Harley, M.D., Ph.D., is scanning every gene in human DNA to see which gene or genes is present in those who make good antibodies after being vaccinated against anthrax.
The grant will also fund collaborations with scientists at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Boston University and the University of Chicago that will examine how anthrax spores move from the lung to the blood stream, test vaccine formulations and isolate individual antibody molecules from vaccinated people.
“Historically, researchers have focused on the anthrax bacteria themselves,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “OMRF scientists decided, instead, to study how the human immune system forms—or fails to form—immune responses to those bacteria. That non-traditional approach now is paying off, and this additional funding should bring about incredible advances in our approach to treating anthrax infection.”
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.
Harley serves as principal investigator on the second project, an $11.8 million grant from the National Center for Research Resources. The five-year grant, which was awarded under the Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program, is devoted to recruiting and training new scientists.
Since joining OMRF in 1982, Harley has provided guidance to dozens of scientists who have established successful research careers under his tutelage. In 2006, he received the American College of Rheumatology’s Excellence in Investigative Mentoring award.
The COBRE grant will help build necessary infrastructure to enhance OMRF’s research capacity and competitiveness for National Institutes of Health grants. Mentoring scientists will work with up-and-coming researchers to study autoimmune diseases, illnesses such as lupus and multiple sclerosis in which the body turns the weapons of its immune system against itself.
COBRE funds will support these OMRF projects:
- Mary Beth Humphrey, M.D., Ph.D., will investigate how variants of the TNFAIP3 gene contribute to autoimmunity in lupus patients.
- Using an algorithm he designed, Jonathan Wren, Ph.D., will search for new gene interactions involved in immune cell movement, which is predicted to play a role in immune disorders.
- Kenneth Kaufman, Ph.D., will look for variations in genes related to lupus in African Americans.
- Courtney Gray-McGuire, Ph.D., will study the genetics of autoantibody production in the early stages of autoimmune disease.
- Amr Sawalha, M.D., will explore certain genetic variants and their physical manifestations in patients with lupus.
- Marta Alarcon, M.D., Ph.D., will look at particular gene variants found in lupus patients and determine how they affect signaling in B cells.
“Competition for these grants is fierce,” Prescott said. “For our scientists to win not just one, but two, grants of this caliber is a tremendous achievement. It speaks highly of OMRF’s research excellence, and we are very proud of the success our researchers have had in securing these awards.”