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OU College of Medicine Awarded $11 Million Grant to Study Infections

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The University of Oklahoma College of Medicine has been awarded an $11 million federal grant to create the Oklahoma Center for Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunity, a hub for research into many types of infections and how the immune system recognizes and destroys them, or succumbs to them.

The new center will be housed in the college’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, chaired by Jimmy Ballard, Ph.D. The five-year grant is from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health. It represents a CoBRE (Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence) grant, which establishes multidisciplinary research in Oklahoma and enables talented researchers to compete for additional federal awards. A major component of the program is mentoring junior researchers, who contribute to better patient treatment with their projects, while building their careers and attracting additional grant funding that helps to drive Oklahoma’s economic growth.

While funds will not be used to investigate the COVID-19 virus, the grant is especially timely as the world is battling a new viral infection that overwhelms the immune systems of some people it infects while sparing others. Ballard’s team of researchers will use the grant money to further their studies into various fungal, bacterial, viral and parasitic infections, in the context of how the immune system recognizes and destroys those infectious agents, or the opposite occurs.

“Under most circumstances, our immune system does a good job of responding to and clearing infectious agents, Ballard said. “It happens all the time in our bodies. We want to better understand what makes our immune systems successful, but also finding the weak links that can be exploited by pathogens. When a battle is taking place, the microbes that are successful have come up with a way to short-circuit or interrupt the effective immune response, either by killing cells or altering the way those immune cells function.”

This CoBRE grant provides funding and mentorship to five junior researchers – three at the OU College of Medicine and two at Oklahoma State University. Mentors support the researchers during their investigations and as they leverage their findings to attract new federal grants. The CoBRE also supports a research core, in this case advanced technology in genomics and transcriptomics that can be used by all researchers. 

Researchers supported by the grant are: 

·       Lauren Zenewicz, Ph.D., OU Department of Microbiology and Immunology, who studies infections and inflammation of the intestinal tract related to Clostridium difficile, which affects 500,000 people in the United States each year, often older adults who have been in the hospital and have been taking antibiotics.

·       Kevin Fuller, Ph.D., OU Department of Ophthalmology and Department of Microbiology and Immunology, who studies fungal infections of the eye.

·       Hala Chaaban, M.D., OU Department of Pediatrics, who studies necrotizing entercolitis, a devastating disease in which bacteria invade the intestinal wall of premature infants.

·       Matt Cabeen, Ph.D., OSU, who studies biofilms and mechanisms of antibiotic resistance.

·       Karen Wozniak, Ph.D., OSU, who studies fungal infections of the lung.


In several projects, researchers will seek to understand how the microbiome of the intestinal tract – which is filled with thousands of bacteria, good and bad -- influences infection and immune responses. The challenge is to uncover which bacteria are related to specific infections, Ballard said.

“The microbiome plays a major role in how our immune system develops, beginning soon after birth,” he said. “There are thousands of different types of bacteria that make up each person’s very individualized microbiome. However, even though our microbiomes are different, there are changes we have in common that make us susceptible to infections. That’s part of our work – what changes in our microbiomes to make us have problems with our immune system development or responses?”

Research reported in this press release is supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a component of the National Institutes of Health, under the award number 1P20GM134973-01.