OU College of Medicine researcher receives federal grant

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A researcher with the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine has been awarded one of the most prestigious federal grants – the National Institutes of Health MERIT Award.

Rodney Tweten, Ph.D., a professor in the college’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, was awarded the grant, which provides 10 years of uninterrupted funding up to $5.3 million. The award was granted by the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the NIH, which only presents MERIT awards to about 15 researchers each year across the United States.

Tweten came to the OU College of Medicine 31 years ago. He studies a class of toxins considered to be the most widely disseminated toxins in bacteria. They are involved in disease development because of their ability to do one significant task – form large holes in the membranes of cells.

“About 37 of these toxins assemble on our membranes, and they punch a hole in the membrane, almost like a cookie cutter would cut into dough,” Tweten said. “We’ve been able to make advances in understanding how these proteins assemble into that complex. It’s very basic research, but it applies to many different important pathogens.”

Tweten’s research has been crucial to the progress being made on a new vaccine for streptococcal pneumonia because the toxins he studies are present in all strains of the disease.

MERIT Awards are given to scientists who are at the top of their fields, and Tweten has an impressive track record of federal funding and continuous discoveries, said Jimmy Ballard, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

“MERIT Awards are extremely rare and almost unheard of in the current funding climate. Recipients are selected following a rigorous nomination process,” Ballard said. “We are proud of Dr. Tweten’s accomplishments.”

Tweten’s MERIT Award demonstrates the quality of his work and his contributions to the understanding of human disease development, said James Tomasek, Ph.D., vice president for research at the OU Health Sciences Center.

“Basic science research like that Dr. Tweten conducts is important because it builds a foundation for enhanced understanding and, ultimately, improved treatment of disease,” Tomasek said. “At the OU Health Sciences Center, we are fortunate to have both researchers and physicians on the same campus, each working toward better answers for those suffering from disease.”

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