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UM lands $33M grant from National Institutes of Health for research on opioid vaccine

Funding from the National Institutes of Health covers two Phase 1 clinical trials of opioid vaccines developed by UM’s Center for Translational Medicine. The collaboration includes Inimmune Corp. in Missoula and the University of Minnesota. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

The University of Montana on Friday announced it’s largest grant in school history, a $33.4 million award from the National Institutes of Health for the development of opioid vaccines and their clinical trials.

The funding covers two Phase 1 clinical trials of opioid vaccines developed by UM’s Center for Translational Medicine. The collaboration includes Inimmune Corp. in Missoula and the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Jay Evans, the principle investigator on the award and director of UM’s Center for Translational Medicine, said the funding will boost the school’s ongoing research on the development of an opioid vaccine and serves as “validation of our world-class research team at UM.”

“It will allow us to advance lead opioid vaccine candidates to Phase I human clinical trials and better understand the safety and efficacy of our vaccine adjuvants, which early research has shown will be needed to increase the quantity and quality of the anti-drug antibody response in people with opioid addictions,” Evans said.

Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship, said the award demonstrates UM’s continued commitment to using its research faculty and facilities to address problems of concern to the country and Montana.

“Drug addiction is an on-going concern to the state, where roughly half of all deaths from drug overdoses are due to opioids,” Whittenburg said. “The development of an adjuvant vaccine for treatment of opioid addiction is key to overcoming a major health issue for the state.”

UM received one of only two awards granted from the latest round of funding. UM collaborators at Boston Children’s Hospital were the other recipient. Both institutions are working in partnership with Missoula’s Inimmune Corp., a start-up company located in UM’s business incubator, MonTEC.

“The public-private partnership between UM and Inimmune provides a critical mechanism to advance multiple vaccine research programs to human clinical trials for the benefit of patients,” said David Burkhart, the COO at Inimmune Corp. and co-investigator on the award.

Other collaborators on the UM Opioid Vaccine award include Marco Pravetoni and Dr. Sandy Comer from Columbia University. Both are experts in opioid addiction and drug-addiction vaccine clinical trials.

“The growing success of the Center for Translational Medicine and its business partner, Inimmune Corp, demonstrates the value of a tightly coupled public/private partnership that provides economic growth for the community while working to solve issues critical to the state,” said Whittenburg.

The award adds to the growing national recognition of UM’s work in vaccine development and funding for development and trials. The center is currently in the middle of a five-year, $17.2 million contract to develop a universal flu vaccine.

This spring, the NIH also awarded the center $3.7 million to advance a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. UM’s COVID work garnered UM a ranking in Successful Student’s Top 10 list for “Best Universities Solving the Coronavirus Pandemic,” joining schools like Harvard and Oxford.

“When our nation’s healthcare, environmental, and business leaders are looking to invest in world-class research, they are turning to UM,” said UM President Seth Bodnar. “That is one of the reasons we have seen UM’s research expenditures grow by more than 90% in the past six years. This award will further strengthen the efforts of our vaccine research team to develop life-saving solutions to some of our world’s biggest problems.”