BioNTech taps Drew Weissmann’s UPenn lab to expand into infectious disease mRNA vaccines

BioNTech's headquarters
BioNTech's headquarters. (BioNTech)

BioNTech has teamed up with the University of Pennsylvania to develop nucleoside-modified mRNA vaccines. The pact tasks Drew Weissmann’s UPenn lab with taking vaccines against up to 10 infectious diseases through to the completion of IND-enabling studies.

In recent years, Weissmann and other researchers have shown that the use of modified nucleosides may unlock the potential of mRNA vaccines by boosting translation and decreasing activation of the innate immune system. By tweaking these immunostimulatory properties, researchers think they can create vaccines that are safer, more effective and faster to produce than conventional shots.

“Nucleoside-modified mRNA vaccines offer promising advantages over conventional vaccines: They have the potential to encode any antigen for almost any pathogen, allow for higher levels of neutralization and durability of the response and have the capacity for faster production at potentially lower cost,” Drew Weissman said in a statement. 

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Weissmann laid the groundwork for the rise of mRNA vaccines around 10 years ago in a pair of papers published with Katalin Karikó. The collaborators founded an early mRNA startup, but it never advanced beyond animal testing. Karikó went on to take up a role at BioNTech.

Now, BioNTech has enlisted the support of Weissmann. The UPenn lab will be responsible for setting up and running a dedicated preclinical research program. Once the lab wraps up IND-enabling studies for a candidate, BioNTech has an option to pick up the worldwide rights to the asset. BioNTech will pay undisclosed milestones and royalties to UPenn.

Germany’s BioNTech began talking up the potential for its mRNA platform to deliver better vaccines years ago. And, in August, Pfizer committed to $120 million (€105 million) in upfront and near-term fees to work with the biotech on mRNA influenza vaccines.

BioNTech has largely kept its internal activities focused on cancer, though, resulting in it running a handful of trials in indications such as melanoma but ceding a lead to Moderna in infectious diseases. Fellow mRNA biotech Moderna already has multiple prophylactic mRNA vaccines in human testing and has generated early clinical data from an influenza program.