A research center at the University of Montana earned $22.4 million this summer and fall from the National Institutes of Health.
"It's validated that what we set up in Missoula through this Center for Translational Medicine is working to advance discoveries at the University of Montana," said Jay Evans, center director and research professor in the Division of Biological Sciences.
The center launched at UM after GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines, a giant pharmaceutical company with an office in Hamilton, announced it would move its staff out of state. The team did not want to leave Montana and instead negotiated employment contracts with UM, where staff have been since 2016.
On campus, staff members have continued their work to apply academic findings to the medical field, and proposals they submitted earlier are coming to fruition.
The largest award is a $10 million contract from the NIH to develop a universal flu vaccine, a project that builds on work the researchers already have completed. The idea is that instead of having to receive a flu vaccine every year, people will be able to have one vaccine and prevent multiple strains of influenza for several years.
On Monday, Evans offered a tour of the center's labs in the Health Sciences building at UM. He and others who work at the center talked about how they are developing the vaccine, and they shared the reason their research model has led to funded proposals and beneficial collaborations.
A couple of students also shared the role the center plays in their educations, both undergraduate and graduate.
Haley Partlow, a senior majoring in human biology, runs tests to see how cells respond to different compounds developed for medical use in one of the center's labs. She said the work she does there ties together her different studies in the classroom.
"It all comes together in this big picture, and it's very applicable," said Partlow, who wants to be a doctor.
The goal of the universal flu vaccine award is to advance a specific formula that has shown potential, TRAC-478, to phase I clinical trials by the end of the five-year grant, said Evans. If that formula runs into trouble, he said, UM scientists have backups.
Numerous laboratories within the center are involved in the work, including a formulations lab, a tissue culture lab, a chemistry lab and an immunology lab, among others. Research professor David Burkhart said the model that brings together researchers with complementary expertise came out of industry, and it's unusual in an academic setting.
Typically, he said, chemists working on such a project might not even work on the same campus, much less under the same roof. The UM scientists said the setup at the flagship means team members can be more efficient in their work and communicate easily.
They also said it means researchers at other universities with more singular focuses often seek expertise from and grant collaboration opportunities with the group in Missoula and its wide base of knowledge.
"We're a fully integrated team," Burkhart said.
Said Evans: "Which is why we are very competitive for large contracts."
All the discoveries start in the chemistry lab, where workers make "adjuvants," compounds that go into the vaccines to boost the immune system, Evans said. The right compound means a smaller dose of vaccine will be just as effective, Burkhart said.
Once the researchers create the compound, workers in another lab analyze it to figure out the best delivery system, the scientists said. In other words, they determine if it is best transferred to the body through the skin, via nasal passages, under the tongue, or other ways.
Then, the immunology group screens the material in test tubes. They want to know how active the compounds are and how well they bind to cells; the more "bioavailable" they are, the more effective they will be.
In development, lab workers pass the compounds back and forth to tweak them and improve results. TRAC-478 is one of hundreds of compounds the team manipulated and it's the outcome of 25 years of research and development.
"It's years of this iterative back-and-forth process," Evans said.
The team is also working on vaccines for tuberculosis, pertussis, and even cancer. Adjuvants developed by the same research group already are being used on the market with a shingles vaccine, new malaria vaccine, and an HPV vaccine, faculty members said.
One adjuvant compound the team designed is in the midst of phase I clinical trials against cancer. If the formula works it will help the body's own immune system respond to tumors as foreign and help fight them.
Already, the National Institutes for Health have spent more than $44 million on adjuvant discovery and development projects the team completed in four contracts, the last two transferred from GSK to UM in the transition, Evans said.
In the previous round of such funding, UM was awarded one of seven NIH contracts. In the current round, UM and corporate partner Inimmune are the recipients of two out of another handful of awards; they are lead recipients of the $10 million award and will receive $3.5 million in a collaboration with Boston Children's Hospital.
Last year Congress increased funding for NIH research, and Montana's congressional delegation was supportive of that expansion.
The current grant is to develop the TRAC-478 to the point it can be tested in humans.
The grant pays mostly for personnel, with staff jobs paying top salaries in Missoula from $50,000 to $75,000, the scientists said. Once the center has hired all the staff it needs, it will have roughly 30 employees, of which 16 will have split appointments between UM and Inimmune, with Evans as CEO.
Evans and Burkhart said funding agencies such as the NIH like those partnerships because the outside corporation indicates strong potential for translating research into the market.
Money from the grant also will help the team maintain and upgrade its equipment. For instance, the scientists recently purchased a UPLC, a high pressure chromatography system for separating liquids, for $60,000.
As a part of the university, the center helps educate students, with a couple of undergraduates, three graduate students, and five post doctoral researchers working on the team. Students within UM and across the country have applied specifically to work at the center.
At times, undergraduate students don't know which type of research they'd like to specialize in, and Evans said the center offers them a chance to sample different areas, like medicinal chemistry or immunology.
Kris Short, a doctorate student doing research through the Center for Translational Medicine, said he appreciates the chance to do work that could help propel a compound into phase I clinical trials. He described the opportunity as unique and the research team as world class.
"It's an opportunity for me to make a difference through studying disease and treatments," Short said.