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Oklahoman: Maintaining biomedical research momentum

September 15, 2019
News Stories

Oklahoman - Dr. Stephen M. Prescott

When Congressman Tom Cole, R-Moore, stood in front of a pavilion filled with Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation employees in August, he offered two simple messages.

First, he praised all of the researchers and staff whose work had resulted in the renewal of a pair of major federal grants to OMRF.

“Pat yourselves on the back and take a little credit,” he told the crowd of several hundred employees.

Then, he exhorted the researchers to “go save humanity in the next five years.”

Of course, he was joking about that second part. Well, mostly.

As the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the National Institutes of Health, Cole knows biomedical research well. Under his leadership, the NIH’s budget grew by more than $8 billion over a five-year period.

With the last election, of course, control of the House flipped. Happily, that development has not stalled support of the NIH, the largest funder of biomedical research in the world.

Cole and his colleagues are now working with Democrats to ensure that growth continues. And the newest member of our state’s delegation, Congresswoman Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma City, has eagerly taken up the effort.

She joined Cole at OMRF to announce the successful renewal of up to $48 million in NIH funding over the next five years. The awards will fund OMRF research on autoimmune diseases and human exposure to anthrax.

The grants “continue the strong trajectory of biomedical research growth in Oklahoma City,” Horn said. “When federal grants can catalyze research that benefits Oklahoma’s economy and patients, everybody wins.”

Indeed, the funding will support laboratory projects as well as clinical studies to help Oklahomans suffering from conditions such as multiple sclerosis and lupus. They will also deliver significant economic benefits by creating and supporting research jobs.

Through the NIH’s Autoimmunity Centers of Excellence program, Dr. Judith James and her colleagues will receive up to $36 million for projects focused on improving understanding of and treatments for autoimmune diseases, which affect an estimated 1 in 12 Americans.

nother $12 million will go to research led by Dr. Mark Coggeshall that began after the anthrax attacks in late 2001. OMRF scientists are trying to understand the body’s response to anthrax bacteria and find ways to counter it.

Both of these projects represent at least a decade’s worth of work at OMRF. This will be the third time the autoimmunity grant has been renewed for a five-year cycle, and the fourth successful re-upping of the anthrax grant.

In the time since each project was initially funded, the scientists have made significant strides forward. For example, the last round of funding helped OMRF launch a pair of clinical trials aimed at preventing lupus and rheumatoid arthritis — the first of their kind in the world. It also has enabled researchers to identify the part of anthrax that initiates the body’s reaction to the bacteria, how the immune system recognizes the bacteria, and how the bacteria causes damage.

These are all crucial steps forward. But steps forward are not the same thing as reaching a destination.

Ultimately, as Cole said, our goal as researchers is to save humanity. To change lives. We want to create new vaccines that protect soldiers and the general population from bioterror attacks. We want to find ways to prevent lupus and rheumatoid arthritis before they ever start.

To do this, we need to be able to finish what we’ve started. That’s why ongoing support from the NIH is crucial.

Make no mistake, NIH grants are tough to come by. These are not hand-outs. Our researchers compete with top-flight medical schools and research institutes from around the country for these dollars.

For example, that Autoimmunity Center of Excellence award we just renewed was 1 of only 10 in the U.S. The other recipients included the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and Harvard/Massachusetts General. That’s elite company, and it speaks volumes about the quality of research here in Oklahoma City.

Still, none of it would happen without the NIH.

We are fortunate to have a congressional delegation that recognizes the vital role that biomedical research plays, both in our economy and in our lives. And we are equally fortunate they understand that research is a long game, one requiring consistent support from year to year, from decade to decade.

The goals we’re working toward are elusive. But if we achieve them — even some of them — the payoffs will be immense.

Online: Oklahoman