OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation has received a $1.75 million federal grant to study the impact of the coronavirus on Oklahomans.
The two-year project will seek to understand the immune system’s response to the virus and how that immune response varies in different ethnic groups. Additionally, the study aims to understand if the immune response is protective against future infections — or if it might worsen them.
“OMRF has a strong history and wonderful partnerships throughout the state,” said Linda Thompson, Ph.D., who will help lead the project. “That should enable us to quickly obtain blood samples from those who have been exposed to or infected by the coronavirus.”
Researchers will analyze blood donated by volunteers to understand individuals’ differing immune responses to the virus. OMRF scientists will be looking for biological clues that might identify those individuals most likely to experience a severe response to coronavirus infection.
According to OMRF, as a group, Oklahomans are at a somewhat higher risk for life-threatening complications from COVID-19, as they tend to have higher rates of other conditions associated with greater mortality from coronavirus infection: obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
OMRF is actively recruiting individuals for COVID-19 antibody testing, especially people with these high-risk conditions, those with Native American heritage, and those who know or suspect they have recovered from the virus. If you’re interested in participating, you can call 405-271-7221 or email Jackie-Keyser@omrf.org.
OMRF researchers will also be studying the roles and reactions of antibodies that form in the immune response to infection to the virus known technically as SARS-CoV-2.
“Specifically, we need to know if antibodies help fight the virus,” said Mark Coggeshall, Ph.D., who will also help lead the research. Work will focus on a phenomenon called antibody-dependent enhancement, where instead of protecting people from future infections, antibodies could actually make future infections worse.
“We have to understand all aspects of the body’s immune response and which ones correlate to good health outcomes, and we also need to understand how these vary in different ethnicities,” said Thompson. “This knowledge gap needs to be filled quickly to inform vaccine trials, some of which are already underway.”
The new funding comes as a supplement to a grant awarded to OMRF to study the immune system’s response to anthrax bacteria as part of the NIAID’s Cooperative Centers for Human Immunology.
“Our existing research on anthrax has a developed infrastructure to study immune response to a serious viral infection,” Thompson said. “So, we are set up to start this project without having to develop new methodology. The work can, and will, begin immediately.”
“Our anthrax work is promising and important, but all research efforts right now should be on SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19,” Coggeshall said. “There is no more urgent issue to study in the world, and we will do everything we can to help.”