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The University of Montana has been awarded a $5.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine that could help children with cystic fibrosis or people with diabetic ulcers in the future.

"Our work is a really great example of the cutting-edge research that can go on here at the University of Montana," said UM assistant professor Patrick Secor, principal investigator on the project.

Secor, in the Division of Biological Sciences, said UM is known for its liberal arts, but this particular award highlights the strong "translational" work taking place at the flagship — work that applies scientific discoveries in the lab to real needs in society. In this case, scientists will work on a vaccine that prevents infections caused by a common bacteria and deadly pathogen.

UM is working on the project in conjunction with researchers at Stanford University and Ohio State University, along with Inimmune, a startup that's part of the MonTEC business incubator.

Secor said he believes the partnership with Inimmune strengthened the proposal because it brings in researchers with expertise in vaccine formulation and development.

"I think that really made us competitive and allowed us to get this award," said Secor, who opened his lab at UM last summer.

Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship, said the grant represents the translational work taking place at the university. Currently, for example, he said UM also is in the process of licensing a device that allows clinicians to measure mild traumatic brain injury.

"More and more, funding agencies expect research to provide an outcome that benefits the local community, and over the last several years, the University of Montana has been trending in that direction as well," Whittenburg said.

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Secor said the project is targeting a bacterial infection that is "opportunistic," or one people get if they already have an underlying medical condition such as cystic fibrosis.

This particular bacteria pathogen is called Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Secor said it's a problem in part because it's becoming resistant to antibiotics because of their widespread use and misuse, as well as over-prescribing all over the world.

"So we really need new ways to treat it," Secor said.

The solution underway is innovative because of how it works, he said. Many people don't realize it, but bacteria also get infected by viruses, Secor said, and this particular bacteria has more of a symbiotic relationship with the virus instead of a parasitic relationship.

To make the bacteria less able to cause disease, researchers are targeting the virus itself with a vaccine, he said. This genus of virus is one that's prevalent in other important human pathogens, like E. coli, Salmonella, and bacteria that cause cholera, so the research underway at UM could have wide reach.

"We're really optimistic that if we can get this to work for (this bacteria), we can take our strategy and apply it to all of these bacterial pathogens and have a new way to treat them," Secor said.

UM already has a vaccine that works in mice, he said. The grant is for five years, and Secor said the plan is to optimize the vaccine, test it in pigs since their systems are closer to the human system, and then have a version that's ready for Phase I clinical trials in people.

"That's the goal," said Secor, who went to Montana State University for his undergraduate degree and doctorate.

He said Ohio State will work on the pig research portion of the project; Stanford will take on the immunology; and he'll be responsible for the microbiology with UM research professor Jay Evans and his team at Inimmune doing the vaccine formulation.

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Whittenburg said the grant shows the strength of UM's faculty since in this case, one of its newest faculty members is serving as lead researcher on the project. 

Secor said the team includes Paul Bollyky from Stanford, who was one of his colleagues at the University of Washington where Secor did post-doctorate work, along with some of Bollyky's colleagues from Ohio. 

The grant amount is somewhat larger than a typical NIH award because developing therapeutics is a bit more costly, he said. In this case, he said the agency itself asked for proposals to develop antimicrobial strategies, and UM had one that fit the bill.

People may know vaccines can be used as preventative measures against viral infections, but he said this project brings to light the fact they can be used against bacteria as well. This particular bacteria infects children with cystic fibrosis and is a major cause of death, he said, and it also infects people with diabetic wounds who need amputations.

"Our work has the potential to help a lot of people," Secor said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.