Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) A vaccine for tuberculosis exists, but TB is still the 2nd leading infectious killer in the world after Covid-19, according to the World Health Organization.

With a $12.3 million contract from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the University of Montana are hoping to improve the vaccine for TB and positively influence global health.

Last month, the Missoula flagship announced UM and its research partners were awarded a five-year contract to develop a new “adjuvant” to be used with the TB vaccine.

Adjuvants are substances that boost the effectiveness of vaccines, and UM’s Center for Translational Medicine has a couple of decades’ worth of work on those substances.

“This funding represents tremendous support for our continuous research efforts in advancing safe and efficient adjuvants and formulation strategies for further development of vaccine candidates against TB,” said Walid Abdelwahab, a co-principal investigator on the project, in a statement. “This contract is a strong endorsement of our exceptional vaccine research team at UM.”

Earlier this fall, UM announced a separate vaccine project — to prevent overdosing on fentanyl and heroin — is headed for human trials in early 2024. That work came out of the separate $33.4 million NIH contract inked several years ago.

The most recent contract, for the work on TB, allows the development and clinical evaluation of safe and effective adjuvants to help the threat of infection around the world, said Jay Evans, director of the Center for Translational Medicine and co-principal investigator.

In 2022 alone, the World Health Organization said 1.3 million people died from TB, but tuberculosis is curable and preventable.

“TB affects a significant portion of the global population, and the only licensed vaccine, BCG, has limited effectiveness,” Evans said. “Thus, the development of an effective vaccine is critical to end the global TB epidemic.”

The UM research will involve both undergraduate and graduate students, offering them a chance to improve global health, the university said.

“There is extraordinary research ongoing at UM that could positively impact the lives of countless people,” Evans said.

The project also includes researchers from the University of Chicago, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, and Missoula-based Inimmune Corp., a corporate development partner of UM.

Inimmune is a biotech company located at the university’s business incubator, MonTEC. UM said it will assist with vaccine manufacturing efforts and advancement of this new technology to human clinical trials.