MISSOULA – The National Institutes of Health have awarded a $10 million contract to the University of Montana to develop a new universal flu vaccine.

The five-year award went to Dr. Jay Evans, director of UM’s Center for Translational Medicine and a research professor in the Division of Biological Sciences. The contract is titled “Development of TRAC-478: A Synthetic Dual TLR Adjuvant Combination System.”

Doctoral student Kris Short works to prepare vaccine formulations for UM’s Center for Translational Medicine. (UM Photo)

“Influenza virus infection is a serious public health problem that causes severe illness and death in high-risk populations,” Evans said. “Although vaccination remains the most effective way to prevent this disease, mismatch between vaccine strains and circulating strains can lead to a sharp drop in vaccine effectiveness.

“In addition, new pandemics emerge at irregular intervals, causing upward of several million deaths – posing very real global threats,” he said. “Thus, a critical unmet need is the next generation of vaccines capable of inducing broadly protective immune responses against the influenza virus.”

Other UM researchers included on the award are Hélène Bazin-Lee and David Burkhart, both in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. The project also includes investigators from the University of California, San Diego; the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; and Inimmune Corp., a corporate development partner.

Inimmune is a biotech company located at the University’s business incubator, MonTEC. Efforts at Inimmune will be led by Dr. Kendal Ryter, the company’s vice president of manufacturing and development.

Evans said the team of vaccine researchers in UM’s Center for Translational Medicine have spent more than 10 years working on the discovery and development of new vaccine adjuvants – components added to a vaccine to improve the immune response.

One such discovery, a synthetic dual-TLR adjuvant combination system called TRAC-478, shows great promise to improve both seasonal and pandemic flu vaccines and could be broadly applicable to other vaccines as well.

The research team that earned the contract moved from GSK Vaccines in Hamilton to UM in early 2016 and is continuing its research efforts in the newly formed Center for Translational Medicine.

“We have an amazing and very talented team of researchers at UM who have spent most of their careers working on vaccine discovery and development,” Evans said, “so this award is confirmation that we are on the right path and demonstrates a very bright future for the team at UM.”

“Translational research is a new growth area for the University,” said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship at UM. “We have a number of faculty working on projects that ultimately can be placed into clinical trials and produce positive health outcomes. The new Center for Translational Medicine has helped coalesce many of these faculty into a collaborative environment that provides the background and support necessary to take these projects to the next level.”

The center is a research center that connects colleges and departments to assist faculty, staff and students in the translation of research ideas from “the bench to bedside.”

“There is remarkable research ongoing at UM that could transform the lives of countless people,” Evans said. “The center will foster and develop an interactive and dynamic research community at UM focused on advancing these technologies to help people and communities in Montana and throughout the world.”

Founded in 2016, Inimmune focuses on the discovery and development of new immunomodulatory therapeutics for treatment of allergic diseases, infectious disease and cancer.