Three departments in the OU College of Medicine — Obstetrics and Gynecology, Family and Preventive Medicine, and Ophthalmology — have ranked in the top 20 medical school departments in the United States for research funding from the National Institutes of Health in federal fiscal year 2019. The rankings are compiled by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research, considered the gold standard for medical school research metrics.
The Department of OB-GYN, which conducts a broad range of research across its seven sections, ranked No. 8 among its peer departments with $5.7 million in NIH grants. In the Section of General Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers are studying the effects of iron deficiency in women who have gone through menopause. In the Section of Maternal-Fetal Medicine, researchers are investigating whether the Zika virus can be passed from mother to baby if the female becomes pregnant by a male infected with Zika. (story continues below)
Research in the Section of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility includes an exploration of the mechanism of newborn obesity in obese mothers, as well as a project that is investigating whether there are health risks associated with frozen embryo transfers in which a woman’s uterus is prepared for implantation with estrogen and progesterone compared to transferring an embryo in a woman’s natural cycle.
Led by faculty members in the Section of Gynecologic Oncology, Stephenson Cancer Center is advancing patient treatments in gynecologic cancers through multiple NIH grants. Stephenson Cancer Center also has major NIH grants across other clinical areas, conducts clinical trials for experimental therapies and cancer prevention, and leads in dissemination and implementation research. It is a Lead Academic Participating Site for the National Cancer Institute’s National Clinical Trials Network and is currently No. 1 in the nation for enrolling patients to those trials.
“Our mission as an academic medical center is not just offering the standard of care to our patients, it’s defining the next standard of care,” said Karl Hansen, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of OB-GYN. “Our research and teaching missions are an important element of continuously improving our patient care now and in the future.”
The Department of Family and Preventive Medicine is ranked at No. 11 in the nation with $2.2 million in NIH funding, which is especially notable given that family medicine departments typically receive less funding from the NIH and more from other agencies, such as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The department is also a leader in funding from those other agencies, said Director of Research Zsolt Nagykaldi, Ph.D.
Research projects in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine often include collaborators in the community, as well as researchers from other disciplines of medicine and from other colleges at the OU Health Sciences Center. Three current NIH-funded projects address cancer by assessing and improving the processes involved in a patient’s screening and treatment. In a partnership with the Choctaw Nation, researchers are designing and testing a new care delivery process to improve the rate of lung cancer screening using low-dose CT. In this type of community-engaged research, members of the Choctaw Nation are deeply involved in the design and creation of the intervention, in addition to their patients benefiting from an improved care delivery system.
Another grant involves collaborations with several tribal nations across Oklahoma and the United States, all working to improve the rate of colorectal cancer screening and follow-up care. Screening rates in tribal nations are lower than rates in the general population, and there are challenges to follow-up care. If a polyp or malignancy is discovered during a colonoscopy in a tribal health system, for example, patients face hurdles related to the referral process or because of the next stage of treatment would require travel to another community.
Another grant focuses on cancer survivorship, specifically facilitating communication between the patient’s oncologist and primary care physician once active cancer treatment is complete. Communication barriers remain among medical disciplines that traditionally do not work together, and too often the patient is caught in the middle and feels overwhelmed at having to navigate both areas of healthcare, Nagykaldi said.
“We also need to better understand the most effective content of a survivorship plan so that a primary care physician can resume monitoring the patient, but still communicate with the oncologist,” he said. “The treatment of chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes, for example, should be viewed in a new light following cancer treatment.”
The Department of Ophthalmology, which is housed within Dean McGee Eye Institute, ranked No. 19 in NIH funding with $6.4 million. Most researchers in the department have one or more grants from the National Eye Institute, and several grants also support training for early-career investigators and acquiring state-of-the-art equipment.
Researchers bring deep expertise to their investigations of the mechanisms that underpin blinding diseases. One researcher focuses on autoimmune uveitis, and his grant supports the generation of a novel line of genetically altered mice whose ocular cells can be easily visualized and tracked. This will allow him to better understand the dynamics of the immune response during autoimmune uveitis and develop therapeutics for that disease.
Another researcher studies how the cells of the retina communicate with one another, which is fundamentally important for the regulation of their functions. The insulin-like growth factor 1 receptor is a key factor in several cellular functions of rod and cone photoreceptors, cells whose functionality is critical for vision.
The body’s immune response to viral infections of the central nervous system is another well-funded area of ophthalmology research. Currently, researchers are focusing on the genesis of lymphatic and blood vessels into the cornea during herpes simplex viral infection, as well as identifying mediators that drive these events. These mediators can be inhibited with novel therapeutics, which may prevent recurrence and preserve vision.
The Department of Ophthalmology has a P30 Core Grant for Vision Research, which supports training, expertise and equipment for 24 vision research labs at the OU Health Sciences Center and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
“This core support has undoubtedly been a driving factor in recruiting new vision researchers to the OU Health Sciences Center and new non-vision researchers to vision science,” said Michelle Callegan, Ph.D., Director of Vision Research and director of the core grant. “It also has kept OUHSC at the forefront of vision research and vision as one of the most highly funded groups on our campus.”