Bio Professor Receives $150K Grant for Strep Study

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Occidental College’s Cheryl Okumura has received a $150,000 grant from the American Heart Association to study new strategies to combat persistent Streptococcus infections. Such infections can lead to scarlet fever and heart damage.

"The resurgence of Group A Streptococcus (GAS) infections, the cause of ailments such as strep throat, impetigo (skin blisters) and flesh-eating disease, has significantly contributed to the global health burden of cardiovascular diseases because infection often results in rheumatic heart disease," explains Okumura, an assistant professor of biology.

In her study, "Persistence of Group A Streptococcus in macrophage phagosomes: new targets for therapy," Okumura and her students will examine the mechanisms by which Group A Streptococcus (GAS) survives in macrophages, a type of human immune cell that normally "eats" the bacteria in order to destroy the organism.

"The outcome of this work will yield essential information about GAS survival in these cells in order to provide specific targets for drug therapy aimed at increasing the killing efficacy of these immune cells," Okumura says. The proposed research is innovative, she says, because it focuses on strengthening the immune system rather than using broad-spectrum antibiotics, standard treatment for strep infections that can cause unwanted side effects.

Okumura hopes her work "will be a significant first step toward developing strategies that both treat primary infection and instruct the immune system to prevent future infections, as well as limit the development of cardiovascular disease."

In addition to salary support for Okumura and her post-doc (Mary Clark), the grant will provide funding for two Oxy students participating in the College’s summer undergraduate research program.

"None of the work I do would be possible without my research team," Okumura says. "All of the preliminary data generated for the grant was performed by Oxy students, and the projects described in the grant will be carried out by current and future Oxy students. The funds will provide summer stipends, travel money and supply money so that students can continue to work on the project, as well as share their data at national meetings. Additionally, because molecular biology supplies are typically fairly expensive, the funds provide us with a little freedom to try different kinds of experiments."

"The day I found out I had received the grant, I had taken my kids to Disneyland and was checking my mail on my phone," Okumura said of the "pleasant surprise." "I rechecked my mail several times afterward to make sure the news was real!"