The *National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $11.1 million to a major biomedical research center at Oklahoma State University to continue the work of more than 60 scientists from three research institutions in the state. OSU’s Oklahoma Center for Respiratory and Infectious Diseases (OCRID) received the grant to fund a second, five-year phase of the center’s research mission begun in 2013 when it was founded.
The funding comes from the NIH Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (CoBRE) program, which supports expanding biomedical research through recruiting and training investigators, developing core research facilities and carrying out cutting-edge research.
The grant funds pioneering research into a multitude of respiratory diseases that sicken millions. OCRID researchers are working to better understand these diseases and develop vaccines and drugs to prevent infection, limit transmission, treat lung injury and avert related infections.
Infectious respiratory diseases are a worldwide public health burden. These diseases run the gamut from the common cold and strep throat to life-threatening infections such as tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia (the leading worldwide cause of death of children under 5 years of age), human respiratory syncytial virus (HRSV), infections that exacerbate such disorders as cystic fibrosis and many other illnesses.
OCRID includes OSU, the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (OUHSC), the University of Oklahoma (OU) and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF). It administratively reports to OSU Vice President for Research Dr. Kenneth Sewell. The center is based at the OSU Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.
“OCRID has put Oklahoma on the map in this critical area of medical research,” Sewell said. “Phase 2 funding from the NIH will allow researchers at OSU, OUHSC, OU and OMRF to accelerate their collaborations over the next five years, generating breakthroughs essential to understanding the causes and potential cures for devastating infectious diseases of the respiratory system.”
Dr. Lin Liu, OSU Regents Professor and Lundberg-Kienlen Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research, has directed OCRID since its founding. The continuation of funding for the next five years is a significant milestone.
“Phase 1 has been transformative to the landscape of respiratory and infectious disease research in Oklahoma,” Liu said. “We want to be extraordinary in Phase 2 by continuing to mentor junior faculty, building infrastructure and promoting collaboration and thus developing a sustainable center of research excellence.”
Four core projects in its first phase highlight the OCRID CoBRE focus. At OSU, associate professor of virology Dr. Tom Oomens and colleagues are designing and testing a vaccine for HRSV, the leading cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia among children.
“It has been extremely difficult to make a vaccine for HRSV, and people all over the world are working on it,” Oomens said. “Mortality estimates are really staggering. Luckily, few children in the U.S. die from HRSV, but about 150,000 die around the world every year.”
The remaining core projects include the work of OSU chemical engineering professor Dr. Heather Fahlenkamp and her team, who created in the laboratory an innovative tissue-engineered model of the lung to study the immune system’s response to influenza. OUHSC associate professor in pharmaceutical sciences Dr. Shanjana Awasthi is developing treatments for acute lung injury and inflammation. And Dr. Telugu Narasaraju, a research assistant professor of physiology at OSU, is advancing a drug therapy to reduce pneumonia following influenza.
“Their research lays the foundation upon which to build future studies,” Liu said.
In addition to core research, OCRID supports dozens of scientists and their pilot projects.
In its first five years, OCRID doubled the number of respiratory disease researchers who secured more than $50 million in additional funding. The CoBRE grant also expanded biomedical infrastructure in Oklahoma. Three state-of-the-art core research facilities, unique to the state, were launched.
“OCRID was really the key because it brought together scientists and investigators, which we could not have done independently,” said Dr. Heloise Anne Pereira, dean of the graduate college and Herbert and Dorothy Langsam Chair in Geriatric Pharmacy at OUHSC. “By pooling our resources and bringing together the best from each of these institutions, I think this has really been the success of OCRID.”
That process focused on established researchers mentoring early-career scientists. Oomens benefited from one such relationship by working with mentor Dr. Robert Welliver, head of pediatrics at OUHSC. A CoBRE goal is training the next generation of researchers through interdisciplinary collaboration.
“An important way to do that is to bring scientists with different expertise together,” Oomens said. “That benefited me by allowing me to push my research further.”
The four principal researchers have “graduated” from the program and now work independently to build on their OCRID efforts. A new set of four core projects has been selected for funding for the next phase, including the research of OSU associate professor in physiology Dr. Veronique Lacombe, OSU assistant professor in virology Dr. Shitao Li, OSU associate professor in microbiology and molecular genetics Dr. Marianna Patrauchan, and Dr. William McShan, OUHSC associate professor in pharmaceutical sciences.
“I am extremely pleased that the first OSU CoBRE grant was able to transition to Phase 2 without any disruption, thanks to an incredible collaboration from scientists across the state of Oklahoma,” Liu said.
*Research reported in this press release was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P20GM103648. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.