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University of Montana researchers focusing on COVID-19 vaccines

Posted at 5:23 PM, Apr 23, 2020

MISSOULA — There's a long legacy of medical research in Western Montana, from Rocky Mountain Labs to GSK in Hamilton, and on to the University of Montana. Now, that know-how might help resolve the coronavirus pandemic.

UM just received 2-and-a-half million dollars to help find a "candidate" for a COVID-19 vaccine, telling Senator Steve Daines the labs are already hard at work, building on a foundation of progress on everything from the flu to opioid addiction.

"It's exciting. It's not only exciting for me," said U.M. Center for Transitional Medicine Director Dr. Jay Evans. "It's also exciting for the people in the lab, working on something with such a high local and national concern."

"It reminds me of what happened back in the early Fifties with polio and Dr. Salk. When they announced they had a vaccine for polo everybody cheered," said Daines. "The announcement, hopefully sooner versus later when we have a vaccine for COVID-19, you're going to have a nation cheer. And to think the University of Montana is going to have a big part in that is very exciting."

"We're looking at different types of antigens, different parts of the virus that can be used. We're looking at different amino stimulants that trigger the type of immune response that you want against a viral infection. And we're looking at different ways of delivering the vaccine," said Evans. "All those technologies exist, and our platform pair here at U of M, and so we're combining them in different ways to try to solve this problem with coronavirus. And make the most effective, safe vaccine that could be used in people."

Daines says the UM focus fits with his concern to have more federal money to help with research, not just treating the pandemic's "symptoms".

"I found that there wasn't enough resources placed against a cure," said the Senator. "And that cure is getting these vaccines, these drugs, these therapeutics that will protect the American people. Protect Montanans. And I was able to secure 10-billion dollars in that funding package that focused exactly on that."

However, there are other challenges as well. Evans told the senator that lab space is at a premium. That's something that they'd like to solve in the future here at the University of Montana.

Some relief will come by moving labs to a new building this summer. But UM says the real solution would be a new building for an institute.

There's a number of things that we do that have national import and which most of those fundings are going out of state, and the jobs are going out of state," said U.M. V.P. for Research and Creative Scholarship Scoot Whittenburg. "And we could actually do some more efforts here and actually keep more of those jobs and more of those dollars here."

There were 15-people when the former GSK researchers came to UM 4-years ago. Now there are 40.