UM researchers awarded $2.5 million to develop COVID-19 vaccine candidate

Researchers in the Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Montana have been awarded $2.5 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health to identify and advance a COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

The principal investigator on the two-year award is Dr. Jay Evans, the center director and a research professor in UM's Division of Biological Sciences.

When the call came from NIH in February to shift focus and develop a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, we quickly adjusted lower priority vaccine projects to focus our efforts on this urgent need. Our dedicated team of experienced researchers stepped up in the face of school closures, stay-at-home orders and social distancing to rapidly advance this vaccine and continue working on other essential research projects of critical importance to our community and the nation."

Dr. Jay Evans, research professor in UM's Division of Biological Sciences

The NIH award resulted from the combined efforts of Evans with Drs. David Burkhart and Hélène Bazin-Lee from the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences; Dr. Kendal Ryter from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; and Dr. Steve Sprang from the Division of Biological Sciences. The UM team partnered with Drs. Florian Krammer and Adolfo García-Sastre from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in in New York City to assist with the rapid advancement of a COVID-19 vaccine.

UM has a world-class vaccine discovery and development team actively working on new or improved vaccines for influenza virus, tuberculosis, pertussis (whooping cough), Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Lyme disease, E. coli and opioid addiction.

This vaccine research team has expanded from 15 people in January 2016, when the group joined UM from GSK, to over 40 employees now, including students, staff and faculty. There are plans for further growth in 2020 and beyond with this funding and other new projects expected this year.

Dr. Stephanie Lathrop, a UM immunologist and COVID-19 project leader, has been instrumental in designing studies and coordinating staff schedules in the middle of a pandemic.

"It's not every day you can be involved in an essential vaccine project with global health implications," Lathrop said. "It has been amazing to see the UM community rally behind us in support of our efforts."

The research team has implemented alternative work schedules, social distancing, additional personal-protective-equipment requirements and telecommuting to ensure the safety of employees and their families while balancing the need for critical research to continue.

"Zoom and Skype are our new best friends, keeping us all healthy and connected in real-time," Evans said. "We have learned new ways of working and interacting - some of which will also be helpful after the restrictions are lifted."

The UM team has spent more than 20 years 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. These technologies now are being used for the COVID-19 project to rapidly advance a safe and effective vaccine toward human clinical trials.

"Our team has already started testing a wide array of vaccine adjuvants with the COVID-19 antigens from our collaborators at Mount Sinai to quickly find the best vaccine that will protect against the virus," said Burkhart, a researcher and associate director of the Center for Translational Medicine. "We will use this data to obtain funding to advance it to human clinical trials as soon as possible, while running the tests needed to ensure the vaccine is safe for human use."

"This award demonstrates the amazing team the University has assembled to advance vaccine development for both COVID-19 and future viruses that will lead to the next pandemic," said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. "UM is now a recognized leader in the response to pandemics and other health emergencies through the Center for Translational Medicine, Center for Public Health Research, Center for Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics and numerous faculty across campus."

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