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Jay Evans, president and CEO of Inimmune Corp., center, talks with then-University of Montana President Royce Engstrom, left, and Gov. Steve Bullock in 2016 during an announcement of the biotechnology company's move to Missoula and a tour of the lab, housed temporarily at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center.

In the midst of one of the worst flu seasons this century, a biotech company in Missoula has landed a nationally competitive grant to develop new drugs for treating and preventing upper respiratory tract infections, including influenza.

Inimmune Corp., housed in the MonTech building on East Broadway, will get a Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research award worth $176,000 from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Our submission was put in well before this flu season, but this group has been working with influenza vaccines and immunotherapy treatments for 15 years,” said Inimmune co-founder, president and CEO Jay Evans. “The funding agencies are always looking for ways to improve the flu vaccine. We’ve shown that our treatment is effective against a broad range of viral pathogens, but the primary focus is on the flu. The industry has a lot of interest.”

Montana is actually faring relatively well in terms of flu deaths and infections this year, compared to the rest of the country.

As of Jan. 20, the Missoula City-County Public Health Department had reported that there were 2,530 cases in Montana with 353 hospitalizations and 20 deaths. Missoula County reports 115 total cases with 41 hospitalizations and two flu-related deaths.

Nationwide, however, the Centers For Disease Control told multiple news outlets that the flu was killing roughly 4,000 people per week in January.

Evans said the treatment Inimmune is working on is more of a prophylactic, a measure intended to prevent disease, rather than a therapy.

“If you are going to be traveling or going somewhere where you have a high opportunity of getting exposed to a respiratory pathogen, then you would take this treatment inter-nasally to prevent it,” he said. “We’ve shown it works against (respiratory syncytial virus) and bacterial pathogens.”

Last year, Inimmune got a $130,000 grant from the Montana Board of Research and Commercialization Technology, and Evans said this new grant is an extension of the work initiated by that funding.

“This is a return on state money put into biotech investment,” he said.

Flu treatment isn’t the only thing the money will go toward, however.

“The properties of our novel and proprietary immune stimulating compounds provide a unique opportunity to treat patients rapidly and with high effectiveness,” Evans noted. “In addition, this therapeutic platform has potential applications in many disease areas including treatment of allergy and cancer.”

Hélène Bazin-Lee, the company’s vice president of early discovery, agreed.

“Broad-spectrum immunomodulators, like the ones we are developing at Inimmune, have the potential to provide prophylactic or therapeutic treatment options against a wide range of biological threats,” Bazin-Lee said. “They could have broad utility in many situations, including treatment of people at heightened risk for upper respiratory tract infections and reducing deaths associated with seasonal or pandemic influenza outbreaks.”

The company’s efforts to develop new immunotherapeutics will be led by Dr. Juhienah Khalaf. The company has 17 employees currently, and was founded in 2016 by researchers from the Glaxo-Smith-Kline facility in Hamilton.

The company works closely with researchers at the University of Montana’s Center for Translational Medicine, where Evans is the director.

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