$4M Award Funds University of Montana Biomedical Entrepreneurship and Innovation Hub


The University of Montana recently earned a four-year, $4 million Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub (REACH) award from the National Institutes of Health. The award will establish the L.S. Skaggs Institute for Health Innovation–Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub (SIHI-REACH).

The UM-based hub will accelerate commercialization of biomedical innovation across Montana, Alaska, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as help academic innovators develop medical products that address unmet medical needs across the U.S.


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University of Montana Biotech Center

Research Interests

The central theme of our research is biomaterials. We synthesize new ones, build on existing ones, reinvent old ones. Our current building blocks are hyaluronan, silk fibroin, gelatin and glucaric acid. While our emphasis is on biomedical and therapeutic applications of biomaterials, we’re curious minds and seek to find novel and exciting applications for our projects. From engineering artificial skin, creating wearable sensors, to synthesizing and characterizing materials for analytical applications or in vitro diagnostic systems for bacterial detection, we keep researching and innovating.


Reversible, thixotropic 3D cell culture systems

Three-dimensional cell cultures closely mimic the physiological environment of cells. Currently available 3D culturing systems lack the ability to easily recover entrapped cells for subsequent analyses or subculturing. This project is focused on closely recapitulating the physiological extracellular matrix while creating a dynamic and reversible 3D culturing system via thixotropy. The intrinsic sol-gel transition properties of such materials would allow cells to be cultured under native-like conditions then allow their easy recovery via centrifugation for subsequent analyses and/or subculturing. Such system would be especially useful for eliminating or minimizing genetic drift in microengineered tumor organoids currently used for chemotherapeutics screening. In partnership with our collaborator Dr. Aleksander Skardal, a tissue engineering expert from Wake Forrest Institute for Regenerative Medicine working on microengineered tumors, we are now focused on developing and validating an in vitro tool to facilitate maintenance and passaging of genotypically-preserved primary human tumor cell populations.


Slow-release antibacterial system for otic therapeutics

Ear infections are a commonly occurring problem that can affect people of all ages. Treatment of these pathologies usually includes the administration of topical or systemic antibiotics, depending on the location of the infection. Otitis externa (OE, outer ear infections) can have various etiologies. However, bacterial infections (typically attributable to Pseudomonas aeruginosa or Staphylococcus aureus) account for approximately 98% of all cases. OE treatment regimes prescribe topical analgesics, locally acidifying solutions (2% acetic acid) and/or antibiotic eardrops. Topical antibiotic drops are preferred to their oral counterparts as the therapeutic is delivered directly to the infected tissue. Still, they require multiple daily applications over 7-10 days, and studies show that only 40% of patients who self-medicate do so appropriately with the effectiveness of the therapy increasing when someone else other than the patient applies the drops. In this context, are investigating the feasibility of a single-application slow-releasing therapeutic formulation of an antibiotic for the treatment of otitis externa. The in vitro evaluations conducted so far, reflective of therapeutic ease of administration, formulation stability, cytocompatibility assessment, antibacterial efficacy, and formulation lifespan, indicate that our developed formulations, based on thixotropic, antibiotic releasing materials are promising for development as otic therapeutics for both human and veterinary applications.


Silk-based tissue sealant for seroma prevention

A seroma is defined as a pocket of fluid accumulation when tissues have been separated surgically. The incidence of seroma correlates with procedures that disrupt large amounts of tissue, such as hernia repair or abdominoplasty. Preventive and therapeutic measures include placement of surgical drains at the site of the incision. However, this procedure increases the risk of infection and extends healing time. Our project is aimed at investigating silk fibroin adhesives as a potential prophylactic for seroma. This would be achieved by engineering a device that would adhere/bridge the separated tissue planes, thus preventing shear friction and fluid accumulation between them and accelerating tissue regeneration. Our preliminary data indicates that silk fibroin elicits tissue adhesive properties and that they are dependent on silk solution concentration, pH and overall tertiary structure of the protein.


Silk-fibroin based wound healing devices

Our goal is to engineer an adhesive acellular wound healing device based on silk fibroin (SF) and hyaluronan (HA) that would be self-immobilizing and regenerative for full thickness wounds. Our preliminary data show that: (a) lyophilized foam-like SF sheets (SF foams) have skin-like feel, coloration and texture when layered on skin – suggesting that SF foams may be suitable as cutaneous healing devices; (b) the surface of SF foams is micro-porous – which may impart moisture retention properties needed for wound healing; (c) thin films of physically uncrosslinked SF have adhesive properties – suggesting that tissue adherent, self-fixing constructs may be formulated with no added chemicals or biomaterials; and (e) the cytocompatibility of SF constructs improves with the addition of HA – indicating that this parameter may be tailored for optimal wound healing and tissue compatibility.


Biomaterial-based therapeutics for cytomegalovirus induced hearing loss

Approximately 1 out of 150 infants are born annually in the United States with congenital cytomegalovirus (CMV) infections. One of the effects of CMV infection is sensorineural hearing loss that is associated with further developmental sequelae.  In collaboration with Dr. Albert Park, Chief Pediatric ENT Specialist from the University of Utah School of Medicine, we are working on developing and evaluating a hyaluronan-based otoprotective agents. Based on our existing preliminary data, we hypothesize that HA-derived antioxidants would prevent and potentially reverse the ototoxic effects of CMV.


Sustainable, glucaric acid-based material systems for controlled release applications

This project was initiated in partnership with a local company, Rivertop Renewables and was focused on characterizing and identifying potential applications of glucaric acid (GA) based hydrogels. In 2004, d-GA was identified as one of the top value added chemicals from renewable natural sources. For the project, a Rivertop Renewable patented synthetic method was used to obtain  polymers through the polycondensation of GA and several aliphatic diamines. Under specific conditions, these polymers can form hydrogels with a nanoparticulate architecture. Our initial focus is to investigate the suitability of these materials as controlled release systems for small molecules.

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