Catching up with OMRF: New NIH grant, research connects gut health and ability to heal, Griffin named president of int'l research org

Published: Monday, August 23, 2021 By: Staff Reports

A grant to investigate the link between viral infection and autoimmunity, new published findings from an OMRF scientist connecting gut health with healing ability and the announcement that an OMRF scientist has been named president of the North American Vascular Biology Organization highlight recent news from the Innovation District's Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.

OMRF to investigate link between viral infection, autoimmunity

The National Institutes of Health has awarded the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation $480,000 to investigate the long-term effects of viral infections on autoimmunity.

OMRF scientist Umesh Deshmukh, Ph.D., received the two-year grant to study how viral infections such as Covid-19 can influence the development of autoimmune diseases. Specifically, his lab will study the effects of a hyperactivated immune system on salivary glands that can ultimately lead to Sjögren’s syndrome.

In Sjögren’s syndrome, immune cells attack moisture-producing glands, leading to painful dryness and decreased ability to produce tears or saliva. Common symptoms include severe dry eyes and mouth, fatigue, arthritis, and memory problems.

Sjögren’s may affect up to 4 million Americans, according to the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation. While its causes are not fully understood, environmental triggers, such as viral infections, are believed to contribute to the development of the disease in individuals who carry certain genetic risk factors.

“We are learning more every day about the long-term side effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and specifically, we have learned the virus has found a niche in the salivary glands,” said Deshmukh, who joined OMRF from the University of Virginia in 2013. “While most people associate the virus with the lungs, we continue to see more areas of the body that are impacted in the long term. Salivary glands appear to be one of the organs at risk.”

Deshmukh said they are particularly interested in seeing how the “cytokine storm” the virus can cause in the body activates genes and immune factors that already put certain individuals at risk for Sjögren’s.

A cytokine storm happens when the body senses danger and rapidly generates a class of proteins, called cytokines, that help the immune cells to kill invading viruses or bacteria, explained Deshmukh.

“When the body overproduces these cytokines, it can lead to unintended damage,” he said. “This response is what causes a fever when you are fighting infection. It’s a good thing, but you can, unfortunately, have too much of a good thing.”

To understand the effects of cytokine storms downstream regarding autoimmunity, Deshmukh and his lab will mimic viral infections in research models. They will then monitor the activation of genetic risk factors for Sjögren’s and other autoimmune diseases.

“We are seeing that many Covid-19 patients have an autoimmune response already initiated,” he said. “With diseases like Sjögren’s, they can take years to emerge, so we need to hit the ground running now to get out ahead of a potential problem down the road.”

The grant, R21 DE031166-01, is funded by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, a part of the NIH.

OMRF scientist connects gut health to ability to heal

New findings from the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation suggest the gut microbiome may impact wound healing and cartilage regrowth.

The research from OMRF physician-scientist Matlock Jeffries, M.D., could lead to new treatment for skin wounds, severe injuries and post-traumatic arthritis, a form of osteoarthritis (OA) that develops after an injury or reconstructive surgery. Post-traumatic arthritis makes up more than 10% of OA cases and is one of the top reasons for injury-related discharge among active-duty U.S. soldiers.

Stemming from the loss of cartilage between bones and joints, OA affects an estimated 27 million Americans and is the leading cause of disability in adults in the U.S. With no way yet to regenerate cartilage, the only treatment is a joint replacement.

“Knee replacements caused by OA are the number one procedure expense to Medicare each year,” said Jeffries, a board-certified rheumatologist who treats patients in OMRF’s Rheumatology Research Center of Excellence. “But there are no drugs that stop or slow the progression of the disease.”

While most OA research focuses on genetics and blood, Jeffries turned his attention to the gut microbiome. Composed of thousands of tiny organisms in our digestive tracts, scientists increasingly suspect the microbiome as a key player in numerous conditions.

Jeffries’ lab looked at a unique strain of mouse called a “superhealer” that naturally — and unusually — heals wounds to its ear cartilage. Ear cartilage shares many similarities to knee cartilage.

Jeffries transplanted microbiome from the healer mice into a group of mice with average healing capabilities. After the transplant, the “non-healer” mice demonstrated an increased ability to generate new ear cartilage, as did their offspring.

The results, published in the journal PLOS One, indicate the gut microbiome has far more influence on the immune response to injury than previously understood.

“It was a completely unexpected finding,” said Jeffries, noting the idea among scientists had long been that healer mice owe their abilities purely to genetics.

Jeffries’ lab will now study if this healing ability is related to specific microbiome organisms, how long the healing boost lasts and how it may impact outcomes for OA.

“More study is needed, but potentially,” said Jeffries, “if an injury was caught in time, a microbiome transplant could change someone’s outcome.”

The research was conducted in partnership with the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and funded by National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases grant No. 7K08AR070891-05, U.S. Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program award W81XWH-20-1-0002, and the Presbyterian Health Foundation.

OMRF scientist named president of international research organization

Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist Courtney Griffin, Ph.D., has been named president of the North American Vascular Biology Organization.

Founded in 1994, NAVBO is an international organization of scientists who study the function and diseases of blood vessels.

At OMRF, Griffin studies vessel regression. When the body grows too many or too few blood vessels in places like the eyes and kidneys, they can disrupt the normal function of the organ. Griffin’s team works to understand ways to control abnormal vessels. She first joined NAVBO in 2006 as a postdoctoral researcher.

“Organizations like NAVBO help scientists connect with other researchers in our niche of biology,” said Griffin, a scientist in the foundation’s Cardiovascular Biology Research Program. “In science, you can’t be an island and be successful.”

Griffin joined OMRF’s scientific staff in 2008 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She earned her doctorate at the University of California San Francisco following her bachelor’s degree at Harvard University. At OMRF, she holds the Scott Zarrow Chair in Biomedical Research.

In addition to her position at OMRF, Griffin is also the scientific director for the Oklahoma Center for Adult Stem Cell Research and an adjunct professor of cell biology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

As president of NAVBO, Griffin will lead the organization’s global team of officers in education, outreach and advocacy efforts.

“We’re increasingly focused on younger students who are intrigued by vascular biology and making real progress in increasing involvement with underrepresented groups,” Griffin said. “It’s a joy and a privilege to build a scientific family that extends around the world, and, most importantly, it empowers science.”

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