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Research behind COVID vaccines reaps close to $1 billion in royalties for Penn

Harold Brubaker, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

The problem was that the body attacked the foreign mRNA and destroyed it before it could do its job.

The original discovery of Weissman, a professor of vaccine research in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery at Penn and a senior vice president at BioNTech in Germany, was that chemically modifying the mRNA enabled it to slip past the immune system so it could deliver its instructions.

No one knew where the discovery would lead. In an Aug. 23, 2005, news release, Penn said the "findings could lead to new types of therapeutic RNAs for cancer (and) genetic diseases."

The years that followed are sometimes called the Valley of Death, where some university discoveries wither and die because no one advances them, according to Susalka, the expert in technology transfer.

"Universities do a fantastic job of developing the technology as far as they can," but there's often a big gap between what comes out of a university research lab and what a company needs to get a product to market, Susalka said.

Penn scientists play important role in making the mostly used COVID-19 vaccines possible.


In 2010, Penn followed a common practice of exclusively licensing the patent based on the original discovery, along with related patents, to a Madison, Wis., company called mRNA RiboTherapeutics, which, in turn, sublicensed it to an affiliate, Cellscript LLC.

Cellscript's CEO, Gary Dahl, and associates soon started appearing on subsequent patents with Weissman and Karikó.

"That group, led by Gary, made significant and important contributions to the original technology and helped to create an even more robust portfolio of intellectual property," said John S. Swartley, Penn's associate vice provost for research and managing director of the Penn Center for Innovation, which manages the university's intellectual property.

Dahl did not respond to a request for an interview about his company, which sells kits for making modified RNAs on its website and has drawn little attention, despite the key part it played in getting the Penn mRNA technology into the hands of Moderna and BioNTech.


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