They're long lived and their very design makes them resistant to antibiotics and the immune system, but a University of Montana researcher believes he's on to a vaccine to fight an age-old battle, that being an infection.

Patrick Secor, a new assistant professor in UM's Division of Biological Sciences, recently won two grants for his research on a bacterial pathogen known as Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

The grants, including a $250,000 award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and a $1 million award from the Faulk Medical Research Trust, will aid in developing a human vaccine to battle the pathogen.

The later award is split among Secor and researchers at Stanford, Baylor and Ohio State universities.

“This proposal to develop novel vaccines against P. aeruginosa addresses a critical, unmet clinical need,” Secor said. “If successful, it will have a great impact on human health.”

Secor said chronic bacterial infections, including those that affect the airways of people with cystic fibrosis – as well as wounds, burns or medical transplants – typically fail to respond to prolonged antibiotic treatments.

The pathogen in question forms biofilms, or slimy layers of bacteria that allow it to stick to catheters and other surfaces. It's also capable of resisting antibiotics and the host's immune response.

"Bacteria often occupy environments crowded with macromolecules, like polymers,” said Secor. “Think about pus, mucus, dental plaque or even environmental biofilms that form on slippery river rocks or stagnant ponds.”

While researchers have studied how bacteria and polymers interact, little is known about how bacteria sense and respond to crowded, polymer-rich environments.

Secor said the grant awarded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will fund the research.

“By understanding this fundamental interaction, I hope to lay the groundwork for the discovery of new therapeutic strategies to treat or prevent bacterial infections,” Secor said.

Through the Falk award, Secor and his colleagues will also work to optimize a vaccine and antibody that targets certain bacteria to help treat or prevent infections.

The group has already developed a vaccine and antibody against infections in mice, and future work will focus on the underlying mechanisms – a step that brings testing closer to clinical trials in humans.