UM president highlights Health and Medicine initiative

Sheila Stearns, the University of Montana’s interim president, highlights several programs affiliated with the school’s Health and Medicine initiative on Tuesday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

An effort to establish a Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Montana could win the approval of the Montana Board of Regents this spring, serving as a boon to Missoula’s research sector and providing the school revenue from newly licensed technology.

The initiative was one of several UM Health and Medicine programs highlighted Tuesday by interim school president Sheila Stearns. Two months into her tenure, the former UM Dillon president continues to discover studies within the flagship campus that serve as a delightful surprise.

“It’s been fun for me as the new president of UM to be getting around campus and learning so much more of what our colleges, schools and programs are doing and how much is happening,” she said. “It’s just downright interesting.”

Stearns touched on the Neural Injury Center, which opened in 2013, and the Family Medicine Residency Program, which also launched that year and graduated its first cohort of doctors in 2016.

“Without this residency program, we probably wouldn’t have half-a-dozen new doctors placed in rural Montana like we now have,” said Stearns. “These are things that really affect our economy and our students.”

Stearns also confirmed the university’s efforts to open a new Center for Translational Medicine, billing the program as a way to grow the region’s standing in biomedical research.

That effort goes before the Montana Board of Regents this spring, though the foundation has already been established at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center on East Broadway, where Inimmune has found success as a biotech firm in partnership with UM.

“We brought within the university over $20 million of equipment and grants to help fund that kind of research,” said Stearns. “You think that’s good for our students, faculty, community and region to be recognized as a rising start in biomedical research? Absolutely.”

Jay Evans, a research professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at UM and the president and CEO of Inimmune, described the Center for Translational Medicine as an effort to move ideas from the research level to actual development and marketing.

While that’s easy to do in a corporate setting, Evans said, it’s not so easy in a university setting.

“There’s lots of ideas that students, staff and faultily have, but they don’t necessarily understand the process to get it to Phase 1 trials,” said Evans. “The center is going to help them achieve that.”

Two years ago, GSK Vaccines consolidated its research and development operations to the East Coast, a decision that led to the closure of its research lab in Hamilton. Wanting to stay in western Montana, the research team began seeking lab space and the support needed to sustain a large research program.

UM capitalized on the opportunity and its growing research mission by forging a new public-public partnership with Inimmune. The employees were retained and the staff grew to 25 while more than $20 million in federal research contracts and equipment was transferred to UM.

Inimmune technicians conduct their vaccine research in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The concept would lead to the proposed Center for Translational Medicine.

“There’s no reason that ideas and intellectual properties in new medicines coming out of the university couldn’t do the same thing right here in Missoula rather than having to go out of state,” said Evans. “Every public-private partnership is unique based upon the product and the intellectual property around it.”

That could include an outside company, like GSK Vaccines, stepping in to provide research funding directly to faculty and students, Evans said. It could also see the university license its technology to an outside company.

The result could provide revenue to UM, either through milestone payments or downstream royalties.

“Either way, there’s a benefit to the community here and the university,” Evans said. “And it’s absolutely a jobs creator.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com