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Presbyterian Health Foundation awards $4.6 million in new research grants

Oklahoma City, July 20, 2020

The Presbyterian Health Foundation has awarded nearly $4.6 million in biomedical research grants to the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center (OUHSC) and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF).

“We remain steadfastly committed to funding cutting-edge biomedical research on the Oklahoma Health Center campus,” said PHF President Tom R. Gray III. “The proposals presented this round were enthusiastically received by our Scientific Advisory Committee, in particular the collaborative and team science projects.”

A major funder of research programs at the Oklahoma Health Center, PHF has awarded more than $25 million to support biomedical research in Oklahoma since 2014.

The foundation received proposals for seed grants, bridge grants, equipment grants and collaborative and team science grants in the areas of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases, plus a new area of emphasis, COVID-19. A total of 70 grants were approved and funded.

At OMRF, a collaborative project is underway to discover how a viral pandemic like COVID-19 affects people living with multiple sclerosis (MS). Led by associate members of OMRF’s arthritis and clinical immunology program, Robert Axtell, Ph.D., and Susan Kovats, Ph.D., the project will investigate the severity of a respiratory virus in people with MS and provide insights into how to treat COVID-19 in people living with the disease.

“Many MS patients are on immune-modifying therapies to treat their MS-specific pathologies, but it is unclear if these MS therapies would help or hinder a viral infection like COVID-19,” said Axtell. “Susan and I are using our individual expertise in MS and viral infections to tackle this very question.”

Another project underway has scientists from OUHSC and Harvard University Medical Center (HUMC) joining efforts to study the connection between an infant’s microbiome and acquired immunity, which may be established during the first few days of life. The team of scientists include OUHSC researchers Jacob Friedman, Ph.D., Karen Jonscher, Ph.D., and HUMC researcher William Robins, Ph.D. The team is studying the impact of the developing immune system and resulting immune responses and metabolic disorders that may develop later in adulthood.

“Our current work supports the presence of a critical developmental window when disruption of the normal infant microbiome in babies born to obese mothers may predispose the infant to a number of immune diseases,” said Friedman, director of Harold Hamm Diabetes Center. “Although multiple pathways are involved, we hope to understand how certain early bacteria can underlie development of a number of inflammatory disorders, including obesity, Type 1 diabetes, and fatty liver disease.”

“We are ecstatic about the science presented this round and the evolution of discovery we’ve seen over the past few years,” said PHF Scientific Advisory Committee Chairman Jerry Vannatta, M.D. “Many of the funded projects are gaining discovery momentum, generating extramural funding and producing meaningful results.”

As funding sources continue to tighten, PHF is confident its granting capacity for medical research will continue to grow.

“Private foundations like PHF play a critical role in supporting medical research advancement,” said Gray. “Our contributions are enabling researchers to achieve important progress for public health. We’re happy to continue supporting Oklahoma’s researchers and know their discoveries are translating into better quality of life for all Oklahomans.”


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