PHILADELPHIA — Penn Medicine has entered into a new strategic collaboration with BioNTech, a German biotechnology company, to research and develop mRNA vaccines for various infectious diseases.
The goal of the multi-year partnership is for researchers from both the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and BioNTech to exchange their in-depth knowledge and experience in research and development to advance the discovery of novel vaccine candidates for up to 10 infectious diseases.
At Penn, the research will be conducted by Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, a professor of Infectious Diseases, as well other investigators, including Gary H. Cohen, PhD, a professor of Microbiology, and Harvey Friedman, MD, a professor of Infectious Diseases.
While most commercially available vaccines for infectious diseases involve a lab-grown inactivated or attenuated virus that is injected into the body to elicit an immune response for future protection, these vaccines work by delivering nucleotide sequences that code for specific cell surface antigens found on pathogens. Once the vaccine enters the body’s cells, it uses cellular machinery to produce the cell surface antigen protein encoded by the vaccine. The antigen is then recognized as foreign by the immune system, eliciting a strong response for protection against the target pathogen.
“Nucleoside-modified vaccines offer promising advantages over conventional vaccines: They have the potential to encode any antigen for almost any pathogen and allow for higher levels of neutralization and durability of the response, and a capacity for faster production at a lower cost,” Weissman said. “Combining Penn’s strengths in immunotherapy, molecular biology, and expertise with BioNTech’s technology platforms could lead to the development of highly flexible vaccines that provide protections against a wide-ranging list of infectious diseases.”
Recent research led by Weissman has demonstrated the potential of these vaccines to elicit potent immune responses against pathogens, including influenza and Zika virus, making it a viable and attractive platform for prophylactic vaccine development. A study in Nature Communications in August 2018 by Weissman and colleagues showed how avaccine elicited a strong antibody response to a structure on the surface of flu viruses, called the hemagglutinin stalk, and protected mice from infection by distant and mutated flu strains.
The new vaccine research will focus on infectious diseases with a large unmet need, a growing epidemic potential, or that have remained inaccessible to conventional vaccine approaches.
“Entering into a strategic R&D alliance with BioNTech expands the infectious disease research efforts at Penn,” said James W. Bowen, PhD, the executive director of Corporate Alliances at the Penn Center for Innovation. “This alliance builds on a strong foundation of bio engineering and vaccine development knowledge and aligns this Penn expertise with the manufacturing, product development, and translational science capabilities of BioNTech. We welcome collaboration and innovation that improves vaccine development with a goal to develop new and improved ways to reduce the transmission of infectious diseases.”
Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, excellence in patient care, and community service. The organization consists of the University of Pennsylvania Health System and Penn’s Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine, founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school.
The Perelman School of Medicine is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $550 million awarded in the 2022 fiscal year. Home to a proud history of “firsts” in medicine, Penn Medicine teams have pioneered discoveries and innovations that have shaped modern medicine, including recent breakthroughs such as CAR T cell therapy for cancer and the mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities stretch from the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania to the New Jersey shore. These include the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, Chester County Hospital, Lancaster General Health, Penn Medicine Princeton Health, and Pennsylvania Hospital—the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.
Penn Medicine is an $11.1 billion enterprise powered by more than 49,000 talented faculty and staff.