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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 future could be wide open for mRNA treatments.

That level of royalties puts Penn in rare company, but not at the top of the heap. Other universities, such as Northwestern, UCLA, and New York University, have collected far more over longer periods of time from pharmaceuticals.

Northwestern, for example, sold part of the royalty rights to Lyrica, an epilepsy and nerve-pain drug, for $700 million in 2007, but still collected more than $1 billion in royalties over the following six years.

Promising future for mRNA treatments

The COVID-19 vaccines were the first commercial successes in the field of mRNA biology, which has vast potential not just for vaccines but many other treatments, scientists say.

Researchers at BioNTech, Moderna, and other companies are working on mRNA vaccines against influenza, HIV, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), Zika, and other viruses. Cancer is another major focus for mRNA researchers.

"Because RNA is a lot like biological software, we can rapidly write the code for the proteins that are necessary, that might be deficient or dysfunctional in a cell," said John P. Cooke, medical director at Center for RNA Therapeutics at Houston Methodist. That's an efficient way to get the body to fix itself.

"I personally think the opportunity for RNA therapeutics is almost limitless," Cooke said.

But that doesn't mean Penn's mRNA technology will continue in the central role it had in the COVID-19 vaccines. There's competition. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devised a circular RNA — rather than a strip — that lasts longer in the cell, giving the RNA more time to deliver its instructions, Cooke said.

Penn's mRNA patents start expiring in May 2027. It's impossible to know if any of the patents that expire later will generate royalties. What's more, odds are very long that any of the prospects will be as big as the COVID-19 vaccines.


Carnaroli, the university's senior executive vice president, cautioned that the huge revenue stream won't continue for long. "This will have a short life to it," he said.

Jonathan Epstein, Penn Medicine's chief scientific officer, suggested that many of the new treatments would appear after the expiration of Penn's original patents.

"The more important thing is that there could be additional cures for diseases, which is what we're really interested in," he said.

Penn's plan for the money

Penn cannot spend the vaccine royalties however it wants, Carnaroli said. Under 1980 federal law that allows universities to benefit financially from government-funded basic science research, Penn must put the money back into early scientific research.

In November, Penn outlined a $750 million set of investments in medical and scientific research. "That is what these proceeds will fuel," Carnaroli said.

Preliminary plans include the construction of a seven-floor addition of laboratories to the top of a relatively new building at 3600 Civic Center Blvd. at an estimated cost of $350 million, he said. Penn is also considering an expansion and then what Carnaroli called "a massive renovation" of the David Rittenhouse Laboratory at 33d and Walnut streets in University City, where "we have incredible faculty in physics, astrophysics," he said.

The law, the Bayh Dole Act, also requires institutions to share some of the money with the inventors. Penn's patent policy calls for inventors to receive 30% of the royalties — which could be several hundred million dollars split between Karikó and Weissman and possibly others depending on which patents are at play.

"We are incredibly excited to see a lifetime of work be used to help people during this tragic pandemic that has affected the entire world," the two researchers said in a statement. "We look forward to the application of mRNA therapeutics to new diseases through vaccines, gene therapy within the body, and protein therapies in the near future."

(c)2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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