UM advances health research through Center for Translational Medicine

UM Professor Mark Grimes listens to doctoral student Lauren Foltz as she shares results from her research on stem cells. (UM News Service)

Two University of Montana researchers recently earned grants to investigate projects with a strong potential to impact human health.

The Center for Translational Medicine at UM awarded $50,000 pilot research grants to Dr. Mark Grimes and Dr. Jack Nunberg after their competitive pitch this spring.

Grimes, a professor in the Division of Biological Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences at UM, will use the grant to evaluate new methods of growing craniofacial cartilage from human stem cells.

His lab’s groundbreaking research discovery could enable three-dimensional printing of complex biological scaffolds, allowing the patient’s own cells that make cartilage to form key structural features of the head and face. The discovery could have a profound impact on people suffering from birth defects or injuries of the face where reconstructive surgery is required.

Nunberg, the director of the Montana Biotechnology Center at UM, is using his award to advance a vaccine candidate targeting Junín virus, an endemic arenavirus in rodent populations that can cause life-threatening hemorrhagic fevers in humans. Arenaviruses are an emerging pathogen recognized as a Category A priority pathogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The current vaccine, which is not approved in the U.S., is effective but not ideal for widespread use due to safety concerns. But Nunberg has figured out how to improve the safety of the vaccine, and the grant allows him to take the next step to advance the new vaccine candidate.

UM established its Center for Translational Medicine in 2016 as an interdisciplinary research center to help faculty, staff and students take research ideas from the lab into practice. The center promotes the expansion of educational programs in translational medicine and career development opportunities in the health care and pharmaceutical industries.

The center is expanding entrepreneurial programs at the University and building a new community to meet challenges and adapt to changing health care and biotech fields, as well as an evolving research funding landscape. This new culture and community will help prepare students for careers in the biotechnology or health care industries and open doors to new sources of revenue in support of translational research and education at UM.

Dr. Scott Whittenburg, the UM vice president for research and creative scholarship who was instrumental in establishing the center, said the University already is seeing increased research funding, new opportunities for students and international research under the direction of Dr. Jay Evans.

“Dr. Evans and his group in the CTM have far exceeded my expectations in driving translational medicine and commercialization at UM,” Whittenburg said. “The center has become the focal point for faculty across several departments at the University in active areas of research.”