The University of Montana, with support from a $2.5 million grant from the National institutes of Health (NIH), is actively participating in the quest for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. Since ex-GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) talent Jay Evans joined the team in 2016, the university has been developing a vaccine center of excellence in the school’s Center for Translational Medicine up in Missoula, Montana.
Human Capital Moves in Big Sky Country
Saying the University of Montana was quick on its feet capitalizing on corporate moves is an understatement—the university pounced on GSK’s downsizing back in 2016 recruiting Evans to join their team. Back then, the staff that did have offers were required to move back east where GSK was consolidating vaccine work; but thanks to some creative public-private maneuvering, a new spinoff biotech company called Inimmune Corp and University of Missouri were able to hire the GSK-Hamilton, MT research team including five new faculty members. Now the lab has taken on the mission to pursue the SARS-COV-2 vaccine.
Valuable Seed Money
As Jay Evans sees it, the recent NIH funding represents valuable seed money to jump start intense efforts to generate the required data from lead vaccine candidates. Evans believes they are on track and perhaps “six months from now we’ll be able to put in for a larger funding request, likely one of these $10 (million) to $15 million requests that allow us to take the lead candidate through Phase I trials.”
Center of Excellence in Missoula
The 40-person Montana lab operation led by Evans specializes in adjuvant development of adjuvants—that is, chemicals that help vaccines work more effectively and safely. The lab has been involved with a number of vaccine projects and studies, with a focus on the flu, tuberculosis as well as deadly opioids such as fentanyl, reports Montana Public Radio. In relation to targeting SARS-CoV-2, the team needs one part of the coronavirus to work their magic reports Missoulian—they are seeking ways to halt the virus’ spike protein, that nasty part of the pathogen that clings onto human cells. As Evans puts it, “So if you can block that interaction with an antibody, you can stop that person from getting infected.”
UM’s Center for Translational Medicine
University of Montana’s Center for Translational Medicine was established in 2017. A multidisciplinary research center, the team assists faculty, staff and students in the translation of preclinical research discoveries from bench to bedside. The center works across the Montana University System to facilitate the ability of researchers to better advance the clinical and commercial potential of their basic science discoveries. The center has inked collaborative arrangements with prominent institutions including Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City as well as Boston Children’s Hospital. The lab is led by Jay Evans, director, UM Center for Translational Medicine.
Jay Evans, director UM Center for Translational Medicine