Pathway to Vaccines

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The UAB-Wyeth Licensing Agreement Has Long-Term Goals

In December 1999, The UAB Research Foundation (UABRF) and Wyeth signed an exclusive license agreement for the development of vaccines against certain viral diseases using vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) as a vector for vaccine delivery. This license agreement granted Wyeth exclusive rights to a large body of technology that had been created at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

Over the past nine years, Wyeth has been developing this technology in accordance with the terms of its exclusive license agreement. UABRF and Wyeth also have cooperated to ensure that the associated intellectual property is protected. Almost 10 years after executing its license, Wyeth continues to work toward its long-term goal of developing vaccines for the public good. Wyeth’s efforts have built upon those of UAB’s researchers and illustrate the long path that must be followed to take basic research discoveries to the marketplace.

Drs. Gail Wertz, Sean Whelan, and Andy Ball joined UAB’s Department of Microbiology in the early 1990s and pioneered genetic engineering of RNA-based viruses—those that carry their genetic information on strands of RNA, not DNA—such as rabies, mumps, and measles. The Wertz lab focused on respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the major cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children and senior citizens, and VSV, a pathogen of cattle, horses, and swine.

Scientific investigation of this class of RNA viruses traditionally had lagged behind those of other viruses because of the difficulty of creating live virus from recombinant RNA. The Wertz lab overcame this hurdle with a technological breakthrough that opened up the field of RNA-based viruses to wide investigation. These methods for engineering or creating live RNA-based viruses such as RSV and VSV are protected under issued patents and patent applications filed by UABRF and now licensed to Wyeth.

Wyeth is the world’s 11th largest pharmaceutical company, with more than 50,000 employees worldwide, and is headquartered in Madison, New Jersey. Wyeth concentrates its research on developing small molecules, vaccines, and biopharmaceuticals and has leading products in the areas of women’s health care, infectious disease, gastrointestinal health, the central nervous system, inflammation, transplantation, haemophilia, oncology, vaccines, and nutritional products. On January 25, 2009, Pfizer and Wyeth announced that Wyeth was to be acquired by Pfizer. If the transaction is approved, the result will be the creation of the world’s largest biopharmaceutical company.

Academic technology transfer offices were established to facilitate the transfer of scientific findings and patentable discoveries from academic institutions to companies that can develop technology and create products and services that will benefit the public. The UABRF-Wyeth relationship is typical of such academic-corporate interactions and continues to hold promise as Wyeth devotes research and development dollars to bring new vaccines to the marketplace.

In the meantime Drs. Wertz, Whelan, and Ball have moved on from UAB: Dr. Wertz now is at the University of Virginia, Dr. Whelan is at Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Ball has retired. But the members of this original UAB research team continue to work closely with UABRF to ensure the success of the relationship with Wyeth.

Posted on 7/8/2009 9:00:00 AM