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Oklahoma State associate professor working on a vaccine against RSV, an early childhood affliction

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Tom Oomens

An Oklahoma State University associate professor is working on a vaccine to battle a very common virus: the respiratorysyncytial virus or RSV.

“Worldwide, an estimated 44 million cases of acute respiratory illness afflict children from age 0 to 5,” said Tom Oomens, Ph.D., an associate veterinary pathobiology professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine. “Of those 44 million cases, 3 million to 4 million are hospitalized with severe bronchiolitis and/or pneumonia. Of those, 70,000 to 200,000 children die every year. In the U.S., when you look at hospitalizations in that age group, 20 percent are due to this one virus. So it’s a very significant respiratory virus, and there is no vaccine.”

In addition, Dr. Oomens said the virus has a huge impact on the elderly.

“It is a virus that is very cunning in blocking the ability of its host, which in this case is us, to make a good immune response. This virus keeps pestering us throughout our lives. As a result, you get RSV- associated respiratory disease throughout your life, although healthy adults typically experience only cold-like symptoms. It’s recently been realized that up to 10,000 elderly people die every year from RSV in the U.S. alone.

“The potential impact my research can have on human health is probably the biggest overall excitement for me. If we make some breakthroughs and they contribute to a vaccine, the impact on worldwide health is enormous. That’s an important driving factor for me.”

In Oomens’ research lab, the RSV work takes two directions.

“Viruses have a coat, so to speak,” he explained. “There’s a layer on the outside that virologists call an envelope. In the envelope, proteins are embedded, which we have studied for a long time. We study the role that these proteins play in virus replication, how the virus goes in and out of cells, and also how these proteins impact the immune response. The second big area we focus on is how to translate all of that knowledge that we gain into vaccines.”

Developing that vaccine may be getting closer. Oomens is working with Robert Welliver Sr., M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, who has developed a baboon model for RSV.

"If we make some breakthroughs and they contribute to a vaccine, the impact on worldwide health is enormous. That’s an important driving factor for me."

Dr. Tom Oomen

“There are no good animal models, so this is a big asset,” Oomens said. “Dr. Welliver has been looking into some of my vaccines, and recently he received a National Institutes of Health grant to investigate how to best deliver the vaccines to the lungs of animals.

“So far we have been funded to do mostly live- attenuated (using a weakened form of the RSV virus) vaccine work. However, it’s not clear which vaccine approach is going to be the best approach, nor whether different ages need different vaccines. Therefore, we are also looking into different approaches that may help us to tailor vaccines to different age groups. Recently, we obtained new NIH funding to do work on viruses that are not live but are inactive.

“Research careers are very exciting. They do require dedication, a critical mind and stamina,” he said. “One of the best things is you are sort of like a detective. It’s a never-ending detective story of finding new leads that take you to the next step.

“If there were one thing I could tell people about biomedical research, I would like to make the public more aware of how long it takes in the biomedical world to come up with a safe cure, how dedicated many of my research colleagues are in trying to find cures for a disease, and also how much funding it takes to get to that point. In the U.S., most infectious disease research is funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

“In Oklahoma, we also have the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology, which helps a lot of budding scientists tackle important problems and technologies. These funding sources are extremely important to keep biomedical research pushing forward to actually discover cures for medical problems such as RSV.”

To support research at the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine, contact Ashley Hesser, assistant director of development with the OSU Foundation, at ahesser@osugiving. com or 405-385-0715.

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