Public Release: 

Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation selected to receive Innovation Grant from EMD Serono

Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation

An Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist has been selected to receive one of only five Grants for Multiple Sclerosis Innovation awarded this year by the pharmaceutical company EMD Serono.

The award will provide OMRF's Robert Axtell, Ph.D., with $280,000 over two years to study the role a pair of molecules play in the progression of MS and a related condition. Axtell's project was selected from more than 200 applicants worldwide.

"We have the capability of doing a lot of important science here with OMRF's Multiple Sclerosis Center of Excellence and our research facility," said Axtell. "With grants like this, we can really crack some of the interesting puzzles that these neuroinflammatory diseases challenge us with."

The grant represents an important step in OMRF's efforts to build early stage partnerships with industry, said OMRF Vice President of Technology Ventures Manu Nair. "These are unique and rare grants, ones that have a direct impact on technology advancement and commercialization. The fact that EMD Serono wants to work with OMRF's scientists is a validation of the quality of their work and its potential for commercial translation."

With the new grant, Axtell will examine the role of two inflammation-causing molecules, known as BAFF and APRIL. He'll study whether inhibiting the molecules improves or worsens disease in experimental models of multiple sclerosis and neuromyelitis optica, an illness with symptoms similar to MS.

In MS, the body's immune system mistakenly attacks myelin, the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells. The disease causes a wide range of symptoms that include vision impairment, tremors, paralysis, painful spasms, imbalance and cognitive changes. "The results of this research will provide us with a better understanding of the differences between MS and other autoimmune diseases, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis," said Axtell, who joined OMRF from Stanford University in 2013.

At OMRF's Multiple Sclerosis Center of Excellence, physicians provide comprehensive treatment to more than 2,000 Oklahomans suffering from MS. Judith James, M.D., Ph.D., the leader of OMRF's autoimmune disease research program, believes the new grant will pay important dividends for Oklahomans with MS and other autoimmune diseases.

"We are excited by this new funding stream for Dr. Axtell and his team," said James, who holds the Lou C. Kerr Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research. "Collaborations between basic and clinical investigators that address clinically meaningful questions are critical to our success and provide the resources necessary to help improve patient care."

Going forward, said Nair, OMRF will focus on increasing collaborations with industry through projects like Axtell's. "Our vision is to work with the for-profit sector to build early technology venture partnerships. The more robust these collaborations are, the more quickly and effectively we can deliver new and better treatments to patients."

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