UM research remains critical even as first COVID vaccines released

Posted at 6:15 PM, Jan 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-18 14:32:04-05

MISSOULA — Even as coronavirus vaccinations slowly pick up speed across the state and nationwide, researchers at the University of Montana continue to learn more about the virus, and prepare for the next pandemic.

With millions of COVID-19 vaccinations administered, you might have the impression the work is finished in research labs. But in fact, the coronavirus, and dozens of other medical issues, mean University of Montana researchers are busier than ever in their new lab in the Skaggs Building.

“We're in a continuous hiring phase. We've gone from 15 to 45 scientists in about the last four years and we're continuing to grow in and add new positions and buy new equipment that's needed for the vaccine research programs as they advance from a preclinical stage to a clinical-stage," said UM Center for Transitional Medicine Director Dr. Jay Evans.

It's work involving not only experienced researchers but new UM grads.

Sometimes it's something I think I take for granted. You know, just 'cause I'm here every day. But in the grand scheme of things, you know, coming here, every day in solving such a world crisis right now, I'm very fortunate and very grateful that I can have the opportunity in a city that I love as well," said UM Post-Graduate researcher Haley Partlow.

“It's very exciting, but it's also scary, right? Like it's this huge problem that not only I get to face at work, but I also have to face that crisis at home. So kind of coming into work every day and being able to be a part of something that's solving that is really rewarding," Partlow added.

UM's research looks at approaches that could prove valuable as the virus continues to change.

“So I think our approach of using amino stimulants with different types of recombinant proteins from the virus, still could add a lot of value and be a next-generation vaccine that moves us to that next step of maybe lifelong protection. Of course, we all hope that the current vaccine provides that, but we just don't know yet," Dr. Evans said.

There's an added benefit to the research that's been underway here for nearly a year to understand this virus but also prepare for variations that could show up in the years to come.

“It has been a challenge and this won't be the last, you know, SARS type or COVID type coronavirus type infection that we see. You know the next one might be 20 years from now. It might be 5 years from now. We don't know. The same, just like with influenza. When's the next influenza pandemic gonna hit? You know, we can't predict that, but we can do a better job as scientists to be prepared," Dr. Evans said.

“We work on pertussis vaccines which everyone thinks, ‘oh we have a pertussis vaccine’. But immunity wanes over time, so we're trying to add amino stimulus to make it a better, more durable response," Dr. Evans told MTN News.

"We're doing the same with flu or trying to develop a universal flu vaccine so you don't have to get it every year," Dr. Evans continued. "So, what is the next COVID vaccine look like? We don't know today, but what we're learning here at the University of Montana will help educate that next line of vaccines that enters the clinical trials to help solve those problems that we don't even know where they are yet."