MISSOULA – The University of Montana has received a $5.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to help develop a vaccine against bacterial infection.
The principal investigator on the five-year award, titled “Immunization against filamentous bacteriophages to prevent bacterial infection,” is Patrick Secor, assistant professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at UM.
Other investigators on the award include Dr. Jay Evans from UM and Inimmune, a start-up located in UM’s business incubator, MonTEC; David Burkhart and Kendal Ryter from Inimmune; Paul Bollyky and Gina Suh from Stanford University; and Chandan Sen, Sashwati Roy and Valerie Bergdall from Ohio State University. The team’s goal is to develop a vaccine to prevent infections caused by the common bacteria pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
P. aeruginosa is a deadly pathogen and a major cause of infections in diabetic wounds, lungs and other settings. Due to extensive antibiotic resistance, it is increasingly difficult to treat infections once they are established. Although it is ideal to vaccinate at-risk patients against P. aeruginosa before they develop infections, there are no approved vaccines to prevent infection.
The novel UM research approach does not target the bacteria itself, but a type of virus, or bacteriophage, that is prevalent among not only P. aeruginosa, but many other species of bacterial pathogens.
“Most people think of bacteriophage as simple bacterial parasites. Our work challenges this assumption,” Secor said. “The idea that bacteriophage could play a direct role in infection pathogenesis was very exciting to us. It was this idea that eventually led us to develop an anti-bacteriophage vaccine. We were ecstatic when our vaccine produced positive results.”
The type of bacteriophage targeted by the vaccine has a long filamentous shape. Secor’s research shows that when filamentous bacteriophage accumulate at sites of infection, they increase mucus viscosity and promote bacterial colonization.
“You can imagine how having all of these filamentous bacteriophage in the mucus of your lungs – 10 million or more bacteriophage per gram – might prevent you from coughing up and clearing a lung infection,” Secor said. “They reinforce the mucus kind of like rebar reinforces concrete.”
Secor said he hopes the research will improve the efficiency of the vaccine and prepare it for Phase 1 clinical trials.
According to Scott Whittenburg, vice president for research and creative scholarship at UM, the grant funding is a result of partnerships.
“Combining the novel research approaches of University faculty with the expertise and knowledge-base of a company like Inimmune provides a great platform for developing solutions to real-world problems,” Whittenburg said. “The fact that the lead researcher on this grant is one of our newest faculty members is an indication that the University continues to attract some of the best young researchers from around the country.”
“Being able to secure this type of grant funding during my first year at the University of Montana really shows what is possible when you get the right group of people together to work toward a common goal,” Secor said.
The researchers hope their vaccine strategy targeting bacteriophage can apply to other types of infection-causing pathogens, such as E. coli, Salmonella, bacteria that cause cholera and many others. Secor expects that targeting P. aeruginosa is only the beginning.
“Our work has the potential to help a lot of people in a wide variety of diseases contexts,” he said.