During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Tennessee Research Foundation was hard at work facilitating relationships to connect groundbreaking research from University of Tennessee campuses and institutes with industry need.

At the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, UTRF entered into a hybrid agreement with Moderna to leverage technology, expertise and materials from UTHSC. This collaboration allows Moderna to better fight SARS-CoV-2 and evaluate its vaccine against new variants.

Dr. Michael Whitt is the associate dean and chair of the Department of Medical Education in the College of Medicine and professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry at UTHSC. In March 2020, he began receiving an increasing number of calls and inquiries about a technology he created in the mid-1990s. His reverse genetics system uses the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) to allow researchers to study highly dangerous viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, in standard biosafety level-2 laboratory containment measures.

“At first I thought, there’s no way I can provide materials to everyone who was requesting them,” said Dr. Whitt. “But as the pandemic worsened, and when we received the ‘stay at home order’, I thought that the system we had developed was really perfect for the situation, particularly for labs and companies that didn’t have the facilities to work with authentic SARS-CoV-2, since the virus requires biosafety level-3 containment.”

Initially, Dr. Whitt was approached by five different companies to produce materials. One of those was Moderna. After reading about Dr. Whitt’s technology, Dr. Kai Wu, Senior Scientist in Virology at Moderna, reached out to learn more about the VSV system.  He enlisted Dr, Whitt’s help in understanding and combating SARS-CoV-2 and its eventual variants. While the UTHSC professor has generously shared how to make pseudotyped viruses with his system over the years, Dr. Wu explained that nowhere else on the planet could you find someone as skilled in this process as Dr. Whitt.

With demand for Dr. Whitt’s technology steadily increasing, UTRF determined that a hybrid agreement could speed up access to the VSV platform.  UTRF, UTHSC and Moderna began discussions to enter into an agreement involving three crucial elements – each of which could typically represent separate license agreements. Moderna needed access to the VSV material, Dr. Whitt’s expertise in generating these pseudotyped viruses and the ability to use the materials and pseudotypes. Dr. Lakita Cavin, UTRF’s Senior Staff Attorney, recognized the urgency of the situation and tailored three separate material transfer, licensing and research service agreements into a single agreement, creating and executing it in record time.

“It really feels incredible that we were able to play a part in helping to combat this crisis,” said Dr. Cavin. “It’s great to know that our research, research material, research faculty and tech transfer office were able to play a role in helping to fight this crisis and come up with a solution to help combat COVID – and that we are still playing a role today.”

Throughout the partnership, Dr. Wu has been impressed by Dr. Whitt’s level of expertise and is grateful for his dedication to his work and Moderna’s mission. Additionally, as an established professor who has moved out of the lab and into administrative responsibilities at UTHSC, Dr. Wu was surprised by Dr. Whitt’s willingness to get to work and reflected on what he can learn from him as a younger-generation virologist.

“For somebody as established as he is, he doesn’t need to be in the lab,” said Dr. Wu. “Professionally, he offers his scientific expertise of three decades. But from the personal side, I am really touched by his work ethic, passion and enthusiasm for his own work. I am fortunate to know him, have his support, and more importantly, to know how to be a scientist.”

Currently, Dr. Whitt and his lab are still working with Moderna to make pseudotypes the company uses to evaluate the immune responses in people after vaccination, especially in light of emerging variants. UTRF recently signed an agreement to extend the terms of the collaboration for an additional three years.

“My hope for the future is that now companies like Moderna know how to rapidly produce mRNA vaccines and systems are available that can easily be used to assay whether they provide protection using virus pseudotypes,” said Dr. Whitt. “I also want to thank UTRF for making my interactions with companies interested in using our pseudotyping platform very easy.  I’m just happy that so many groups have found our system useful and that the work we’ve been doing for the past 30 years has been appreciated and has contributed to the fight against this global pandemic.”