$10.7M NIH grant to fund Oklahoma Center for Microbiome Research
Wednesday, January 24, 2024
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The National Institutes of Health awarded Oklahoma State University researchers a $10.7 million grant to fund the Oklahoma Center for Microbiome Research, which will add a critical mass of new investigators and create new cutting-edge research infrastructure for microbiome scientists across the state.
The funding comes from the NIH Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program, which is a component of the NIH's Institutional Development Award (IDeA) — and will start Feb. 1, 2024.
COBRE grants support the initiation and growth of innovative biomedical research centers through a series of awards spanning three consecutive five-year phases. In COBRE phase 1, the focus is on building capacity in a specific biomedical research domain. The OCMR can be categorized in this phase.
OSU-Stillwater is the lead institution, with primary collaborators at OSU Center for Health Sciences. OCMR will also include scientists from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, OU-Norman, and Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
Dr. Tyrrell Conway, regents professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, is the principal investigator and OCMR director. Associate directors are Drs. Mostafa Elshahed, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics; Jerry Malayer, College of Veterinary Medicine professor of physiological sciences; and Gerwald Koehler, OSU Center for Health Sciences professor of biochemistry and microbiology.
“Microbiome science is at the forefront of human medicine, veterinary medicine, wellness (think ‘probiotics’ in supplements) and even agriculture,” said Dr. Kenneth Sewell, OSU vice president for research. “Scientists all over the world are racing to understand how tiny microbes act, interact, respond to therapeutic drugs and otherwise influence our bodies and environments.
“The researchers on OSU’s microbiome team have been building their numbers and their impact for several years, culminating in this transformational grant from the NIH to build the Oklahoma Center for Microbiome Research. Dr. Conway and his colleagues will use this federal support to make OSU — and Oklahoma at large — a national power in this critical field. This work is a shining example of OSU’s priority area of enhancing human and animal health.”
There is a $1.5 trillion annual economic burden in the U.S. associated with human microbiome dysfunction and disease. The topic is vast, and this new research center will position OSU researchers to lead in this transformative research.
Scientists at OSU consider the microbiome to be the sixth vital organ, which plays an integral role in human and animal health. Microbiome research is also critical in plant and environmental health; for example, the health of the soil and its microbiome is critical to crop production. OSU is contributing to this effort through basic research in the general area of microbiome science foundational to One Health initiatives. Microbiome science penetrates much of the modern perspective in biomedicine.
The One Health initiative is a priority area of OSU’s We are Land-Grant strategy and aims to solve problems in human, animal and environmental health.
This Phase I COBRE grant is one of only three microbiome-oriented COBRE grants nationwide and the only one to provide anaerobic microbiology capacity. The OCMR will recruit, mentor and support five individual research projects, 10 mentors for research project leaders, the anaerobic microbiology research core, and an advisory committee.
The five projects are:
- Project 1. Huang, George, Ph.D.: Oral pathogen-triggered progression of oral squamous cell carcinoma. Mentors: Drs. Gerwald Koehler and Lijun Xia
- Project 2. Kirchberger, Paul, Ph.D.: Engineering host-determinants of novel gut microviruses. Mentors: Drs. Mostafa Elshahed and Clint Jones
- Project 3. Lin, Daniel, Ph.D.: Microbiome response to dietary carotenoids. Mentors: Drs. Stephen Clarke and Janeen Salak-Johnson
- Project 4. Stubbendieck, Reed, Ph.D.: Characterizing Pathogen-Mediated Production of Secondary Metabolites in the Human Aerodigestive Tract Microbiome. Mentors: Drs. Jimmy Ballard and Paul A. Lawson
- Project 5. Vazquez Sanroman, Dolores, Ph.D.: The adolescent microbiome-gut-brain axis as a potential target in opioid abuse disorders. Mentors: Drs. Gerwald Koehler and Kyle Simmons
“One Health is the concept that animals, plants, the environment are all interrelated and the same is true for the microbiome,” Malayer said. “NIH is very focused on the mission of biomedical research to aid human health but when we build infrastructure it spills over into many other areas, and it aids as we build capacity that impacts these other domains.
“Groups of scientists on the campus in the environmental sciences, in animal and plant health sciences, and in other related areas, can now make use of that infrastructure, benefit from it, leverage it for grant proposals to NSF to USDA, to private concerns, and other agencies.”
Efforts to promote microbiome research at OSU began through the collective efforts of researchers in 2016. The grassroots effort led to the group’s designations as the Tier 1 Microbiome Initiative — one of four strategic research initiatives prioritized for sustained support by OSU’s Division of the Vice President for Research.
Since its inception, the Tier 1 Microbiome Initiative leaders knew that an NIH COBRE would be an ideal mechanism to provide a wealth of resources to support up-and-coming scientists in the field and facilitate microbiome research at the five participating institutions across Oklahoma.
While NIH primarily funds human biomedical research, solving these challenges requires a broad approach, which is possible at OSU through the opportunity to also include livestock and all the research underway at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Conway said.
“As a land-grant institution, we talk to people farther afield from what we do — such as crop science; there are bacteria that live in the soil, and there's a microbiome surrounding plant roots,” Conway said. “We had that in mind from the very beginning, that the microbiome to us encompasses not just the bacteria that live on and in our bodies and animal bodies, but also the soil.”
The mission of the microbiome initiative is to share tools, standardize protocols and sound experimental approaches to strengthen research capacity throughout the OSU system.
“What I found at OSU, more than other research institutions where I've worked previously, students drive research on our campus,” Conway said. “That would be a benefit of this grant. The OCMR is intended to mentor faculty members and provide research capacity in anaerobic microbiology, which is the core of human and animal microbiomes. So, we build that infrastructure, but we engage students in the process. And all five of the supported projects will involve undergraduate and graduate students.”
The OCMR will help cultivate new faculty through mentoring and research support, research funding and the core facility capacity so that they can be successful and gain independent funding. By the end of the five-year period, 10 faculty members will have been mentored to research independence, Conway said.
“It's my hope that people in parts of the university that are not necessarily specific to human health and biomedical science will look at this and see there's a lot of open doors for them in this kind of work, and the application of it, the interpretation of it, and how we use it for the benefit of society. We need all these people,” Malayer said. “There are so many areas, as we indicated before, environmental science, plant health, you name it. There's an application of this in their discipline. And I hope they look at it and work with us, let us work with them.”