UM, Inimmune land $5.4M NIH grant to pursue bacterial fighting vaccine

Inimmune technicians conduct their vaccine research in Missoula. (Missoula Current file photo)

The University of Montana and a Missoula startup have landed a $5.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a novel vaccine to fight bacterial infections in patients.

The school’s Division of Biological Sciences, in partnership with Inimmune and peer institutions, including Stanford and Ohio State universities, announced the grant on Monday.

Scott Whittenburg, vice president of research and creative scholarship at UM, called the grant a big step forward in the university’s push to develop translational medicine.

“We’ve demonstrated in the lab that this vaccine against this bacterial infection works and now we’re going to try and commercialize it,” Whittenburg said Monday. “The trend in current external funding is this translational medicine and commercialization of products.”

Patrick Secor, an assistant professor in the Division of Biological Sciences and the grant’s lead investigator, said the award will help develop a vaccine to fight a particular bacteria known as P. aeruginosa.

Considered a deadly pathogen, the bacteria serves as major cause of infections in diabetic wounds, lungs and other regions of the body.

“Being able to secure this type of grant funding during my first year at the University of Montana really shows what is possible when you get the right group of people together to work toward a common goal,” Secor said. “Our work has the potential to help a lot of people in a wide variety of disease contexts.”

Due to the bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics, Secor said, it’s difficult to treat infections once they’re established. Although it’s ideal to vaccinate at-risk patients against the bacteria before they develop an infection, he said, there aren’t any approved vaccines to do so.

Secor said the team’s research approach doesn’t target the bacteria itself but rather, it seeks out a type of virus, or bacteriophage, that’s prevalent among a number of bacterial species, including aeruginosa.

“The idea that bacteriophage could play a direct role in infection pathogenesis was very exciting to us,” Secor said. “It was this idea that eventually led us to develop an anti-bacteriophage vaccine. We were ecstatic when our vaccine produced positive results.”

The grant announced Monday comes four months after Inimmune landed a $176,000 grant from the National Institutes for Allergy and Infectious Diseases to research new drugs aimed at treating and preventing respiratory tract infections.

Inimmune conducts research at both the Montana Technology Enterprise Center and the University of Montana’s Center for Translational Medicine, established last year. The company was founded by a team of senior researchers in 2016 who formerly operated in Hamilton with GSK Vaccines.

“In reality, most of this in terms of translational medicine is to drive a benefit to society in the research we’re doing,” said Whittenburg. “It’s developing this public-private partnership to drive some of this vaccine development.”