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Empty COVID-19 vaccine vials at the booster clinic at Penn on Jan. 18, 2022. Credit: Jesse Zhang

Penn researchers received $750 million in royalties for their work spearheading mRNA vaccine development, with the proceeds to be used for expanding scientific and medical research at the University.

The proceeds will fund early-stage scientific research specifically in gene therapy, a process to replace damaged or missing genes with new ones. Of the royalties gained, $350 million will be used for additional laboratory space. Preliminary construction plans detail a seven-floor extension at 3600 Civic Center Blvd.  

Due to a 1980 federal law, Penn is only allowed to use royalties from government-funded basic science research if it is put back into early scientific research, Senior Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Drew Weisman, a professor of vaccine research in the Perelman School of Medicine, and Katalin Karikó, an adjunct professor of neurosurgery and a senior vice president at BioNTech, were the pioneers of the revolutionary mRNA technology used in COVID-19 vaccines. These methods were used to develop the first vaccines against the virus in 2020. Since then, over 12 million doses have been administered across 184 countries.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mRNA can manipulate cells to create proteins that release an immune response which then produces antibodies once an actual disease enters the body. Using this molecule would allow for a quicker, safer, and more effective vaccine which was their original goal. In comparison, conventional vaccines take years to create and test, pose a slight risk as they use live pathogens, and are less effective.    

In 2005, when Weisman and Karikó's research was first published, they explained how mRNA can be used for therapeutic purposes. Soon after, according to Penn Today,  Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna licensed this Penn technology which would later be incorporated in approximately 360 million COVID-19 vaccines administered across the United States.  

For their work, they were honored with the 2022 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Life Sciences, the Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research, and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research. Additionally, Columbia University awarded them the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize.

“There were a lot of down times, a lot of soul-searching, a lot of figuring out why things weren’t working. But we never lost hope because we both saw the incredible potential that mRNA had, ” Weisman told Bostonia

The amount of money from Penn licensing revenues in 2021 has surpassed every year with around $310 million, the second greatest year being just $113 million in 2019.