UM pursues COVID-19 cure in tight confines; Daines announces NIH research funding

The University of Montana has received $2.5 million to support its COVID-19 research, adding to the nearly $70 million its vaccine program has received in recent years. The program is rapidly growing but has run out of room, threatening jobs and Missoula’s new biotech industry. A researcher works in one of the university’s bio labs on Thursday, April 23, 2020. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Vaccine research at the University of Montana has netted nearly $70 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health in recent years, driving the school’s Center for Translational Medicine to new heights.

But as new funding arrives to support the global race for a COVID-19 cure, the university’s research wing has run out of space, hobbling the biotech industry’s full potential in Missoula and the role it plays in developing cures for society’s deadliest viruses.

“There’s a number of things we do of national import here, in which most of those funds are actually going out of state, and those jobs are going out of state,” said Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship at UM. “There’s some efforts here to try and keep more of those dollars and more of those jobs right here.”

University leaders on Thursday met with Sen. Steve Daines to discuss the vaccine research taking place on campus, from pertussis and lyme disease to MRSA and coronavirus. NIH has funded more than $67 million in vaccine research at UM in recent years, including $2.5 million announced on Thursday for COVID-19.

The work takes place in a number of cramped labs on campus, along with the Montana Technology Enterprise Center. Both facilities have run out of room, and with another $40 million in federal funding expected this year for vaccine research – and plans for growth – the lack of adequate infrastructure will become more acute.

Jay Evans, a research professor at UM and the director of the Center for Translational Medicine, said the university’s vaccine research team has grown from 15 people in 2016 to more than 40. The lack of a proper research facility could cost the local biotech industry tens of millions of dollars, along with dozens of jobs.

“All the money is going out of state, which is a big loss for Missoula and the University of Montana,” said Evans. “Some of the new proposals we expect to get funded this year with some of our lead (vaccine) candidates, as much as 80% of those awards are going to go out of state, and we’re talking some big numbers.”

Sen. Steve Daines tours the University of Montana’s bio labs on Thursday, April 23, 2020. Daines on Thursday announced $2.5 million from the National Institutes of Health for the university’s COVID-19 vaccine research program. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Economic leaders in Missoula have identified biotech as one the city’s fastest growing and most promising industries. Plans are currently underway to fund an expansion of the Montana Technology Enterprise Center, and the university is looking to enhance its research facilities to take its vaccine program to the next level.

At the same time, the university is racing to identify its best COVID-19 vaccine candidate and move it to clinical trial. As those leading candidates emerge, Evans said, funding from NIH and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority won’t be far behind.

“The goal is to identify the best candidate vaccine we can and then move to clinical trials,” said Evans. “I think we’ll be in a good position and compete really well on that stage. Everything we’re doing is scaleable today, and they’re discovered and made right here by our synthetic chemistry team.”

Vaccine research at UM specializes in adjuvants, or what Evans described as “compounds added to vaccines” to improve the ummune response and make them safer. The program partners with a number of other universities, research labs and hospitals, including Mount Sinai and Boston Children’s Hospital, which studies vaccines on the edges of life.

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar said the program has attracted international talent, along with a growing number of students interested in immunotherapy. The combination of jobs, cures and manufacturing attracts big dollars and represents big potential for Missoula.

“We’re literally on the front lines of vaccine development,” Bodnar said. “We’ve seen growth of the industry in the emerging biotech cluster here in Missoula, and one of the things we’re working through is the infrastructure to enable an even greater impact. We need to enhance our infrastructure.”

University of Montana President Seth Bodnar said the school is working to expand its facilities to further enhance its vaccine program. “We’re literally on the front lines of vaccine development,” he said. “We need to enhance our infrastructure.” (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Daines, who helped secure a $10 billion grant for vaccine research in Phase 3 of the stimulus package recently passed by Congress, said a COVID cure is needed fast. The university’s established partnerships in the public and private sectors could shave months off the traditional timeline needed to develop a safe and effective cure.

National health experts this week warned of a second COVID wave this fall, one that could be deadlier than the first. Coronavirus isn’t expected to fade away and will remain part of society until a vaccine is found, Daines said.

“They’ve got a world class team here in Missoula with years of experience developing these kinds of vaccines, and now they’re working together to crack this nut, and that’s to get a vaccine out to the American people for COVID-19.

“We’re going to work hard to try and condense that time, and not by compromising safety or efficacy, but by working parallel paths on the manufacturing side,” Daines added. “It can take four to six months off the time it takes to get these vaccines developed and to market, and time is critical.”