The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation has received a five-year, $13.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The funding will establish the Center for Cellular Metabolism Research in Oklahoma and supports five junior researchers who study conditions including cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, autoimmune disorders, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“While these diseases may not sound connected, the root cause is,” said OMRF’s Lijun Xia, M.D., Ph.D., who leads the project. “Cellular metabolism is the sum of all chemical changes that take place in cells. When this is altered, it contributes to the origin of many common diseases.”
The award is part of the NIH’s Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program, which helps junior scientists establish independent research programs, funds equipment and resources, and supports essential research cores.
The OMRF researchers who will receive funding and their areas of study are:
- Magdalena Bieniasz, Ph.D., studies how ovarian cancer grows and spreads in the body and the genetic changes in cancer cells that can lead to chemotherapy resistance.
- Jacquelyn Gorman, Ph.D., is investigating the role inflammation and viruses play in autoimmune diseases like lupus, multiple sclerosis and Type 1 diabetes.
- Chi Fung Lee, Ph.D., wants to understand the mechanisms that contribute to the development of heart disease and to improve treatment options for patients.
- Pengchun Yu, Ph.D., studies the defects in the lymphatic vessel system that can lead to lymphedema, a disease characterized by painful swelling in the limbs, and diabetic retinopathy, which can cause blindness.
- Meng Zhao, Ph.D., focuses on how the white blood cells called T cells protect the body from autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Her research will help design precision medicine approaches to treating RA and other autoimmune illnesses.
The scientists are all relatively new to Oklahoma, each having established a lab in recent years following post-doctoral fellowships at the Yale University School of Medicine, University of Utah, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, University of Washington, and the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in California.
The award provides funding for each scientist for up to five years and is eligible for renewal for two additional five-year phases, each supporting a new group of junior scientists.
The grant also supports the combination of new and existing resources for a new metabolic phenotyping core directed by OMRF’s Tim Griffin, Ph.D., and funds the foundation’s existing flow cytometry core, directed by OMRF’s Pepe Alberola-Ila, M.D., Ph.D. These centralized cores will increase accessibility and efficiency for cellular metabolism research across campus.
OMRF has two other active COBRE grants, one that was renewed in 2018 and a third set to conclude in April.
“COBRE funding has had a significant impact in elevating OMRF to the international stage as well as in our ability to retain top scientific talent,” said OMRF Vice President of Research Rodger McEver, M.D. “Dr. Xia is a perfect example, having received funding from a COBRE nearly 20 years ago. With the opportunity to now lead one of his own, it’s come full circle. This is an exciting development for OMRF’s next wave of great scientists.”
The grant, No. P20GM139763-01, is funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a part of the NIH.