UM receives largest single research award in its history
Montana university and its partners seek opioid vaccines
Credit: University of Montana/Tommy Martino
MISSOULA – The National Institutes of Health has awarded the University of Montana a five-year, $33.4 million award for the development and clinical trials of opioid vaccines. It is the largest such award in University history.
The award was funded through the NIH HEAL Initiative, a national effort to speed scientific solutions to the national opioid health crisis. It includes funding for two Phase One clinical trials of opioid vaccines developed by UM’s Center for Translational Medicine in collaboration with Inimmune Corp. (Dr. Kendal Ryter and Dr. David Burkhart) and the University of Minnesota (Dr. Marco Pravetoni).
The UM vaccine research team has spent more than two decades working to improve vaccines through the use of adjuvants – components added to vaccines to improve the immune response – and novel delivery systems to ensure vaccines are safely and efficiently delivered to the right cells.
Dr. Jay Evans, principal investigator on this award and director of UM’s Center for Translational Medicine, said this is a great opportunity for UM and Missoula to make an impact on a local and global health crisis.
“This funding is an enormous boost to the research we’ve already done on the development of an opioid vaccine and is validation of our world-class research team at UM,” Evans said. “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 have shown will be needed to increase the quantity and quality of the anti-drug antibody response in people with opioid addictions.”
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 this NIH Request for Applications. 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 Burkhart, COO at Inimmune Corp. and co-investigator on the award.
Other collaborators on the UM Opioid Vaccine award include 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.
This new award comes on the heels of 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.
UM President Seth Bodnar said the University’s prominence in medical research mirrors its overall reputation for innovation.
“When our nation’s healthcare, environmental, and business leaders are looking to invest in world-class research, they are turning to UM,” Bodnar said. “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.”