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Penn Vet Announces mRNA Research Initiative to Advance Veterinary Vaccine Science

By: Martin J. Hackett Date: Feb 19, 2024

[February 19, 2024; PHILADELPHIA] – The University of Pennsylvania (Penn) School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) announced the launch of the School’s mRNA Research Initiative to fast-track the development of veterinary mRNA-based vaccines and host-directed therapies.

Phillip Scott, PhD, vice dean for Research and Academic Resources announced the Initiative on the 35th anniversary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s National Public Science Day. The research initiative will be led by Christopher Hunter, PhD, founding director of Penn Vet's Institute for Infectious and Zoonotic Diseases (IIZD) and the Mindy Halikman Heyer Distinguished Professor of Pathobiology.

“The mRNA Research Initiative will advance basic vaccine science leveraging the mRNA platform and harness our extraordinary expertise here at Penn Vet,” said Scott. “Not only will this Initiative make a substantial contribution to mRNA scholarship, but it will also facilitate the application of the mRNA platform to the development of veterinary vaccines.”

Funding for the Initiative was provided by the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation through the backing of 2023 Nobel Prize winner Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, the Roberts Family Professor of Vaccine Research in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“This support is designed to foster ongoing collaborations between Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and Penn Vet,” said Weissman. “Expanding the breadth of work on mRNA biology across species.”

Operating under the umbrella of Penn Vet’s IIZD, and with support from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Initiative will advance basic vaccine science using the mRNA platform, develop mRNA vaccines that target veterinary species, and accelerate innovation at Penn Vet using mRNA-based vaccines and therapies for a variety of diseases.

While mRNA vaccines are efficient at stimulating antibody responses, they are less able to generate enduring lung, gut, and skin T cells that are critical for barrier immunity to many pathogens. Leveraging Penn Vet’s immunologic expertise, the first phase of the project will investigate how to generate sustained T cell-mediated immunity in the lung, gut, and skin with mRNA vaccines. Scientific findings from these basic studies will inform the project’s goal to develop veterinary vaccines, including a vaccine for avian influenza in poultry, and a vaccine for viral infections in swine.

“The development of mRNA vaccine approaches has had a tremendous impact on human health, but it has not yet been applied to the veterinary vaccine field,” said Hunter. “The flexible nature of mRNA technology makes it a tractable platform to generate and validate species-specific mRNA expressing immune modulators and to design vaccines for a whole host of veterinary pathogens. This Initiative will have a profound role in protecting not only the health and welfare of farm animals and our food supply, but also on the safety and long-term viability of farming communities in Pennsylvania and across the country.”

In addition to basic and translational vaccine projects, the Initiative will fund at least one multi-investigator research project annually that expands the scope, furthers progress, or leverages existing scholarship to accelerate mRNA research at Penn Vet. An annual symposium will also be held, providing a forum for scientists, scholars, and students to present their work utilizing the mRNA platform; and to contribute to the overall advancement of Penn Vet’s mRNA science.

Learn more about Penn’s mRNA technology and its future applications here.