U.S. Patent Office Praises Dartmouth Vaccine Breakthrough

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The work to stabilize coronavirus spike proteins earned a Patents for Humanity award.

Graphic of a spike protein (a sphere with growths around it)
(Image via Shutterstock) 

The invention of a method to stabilize coronavirus spike proteins received a Patents for Humanity award last month from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in the COVID-19 category.

The spike protein technology—developed through a research collaboration among Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (part of the National Institutes of Health), and Scripps Research Institute—proved crucial to the rapid development of vaccines against COVID-19. Dartmouth’s critical contribution was discovered by a team led by Jason McLellan, a structural biologist and former assistant professor at Geisel.

“This award demonstrates Dartmouth’s commitment not only to supporting groundbreaking research, but also to forging collaborations and transferring applications of that research to benefit the world,” says Eric Fossum, vice provost for entrepreneurship and technology transfer.

At the Feb. 16 awards ceremony, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO Kathi Vidal praised the nation’s innovators for responding to the pandemic with “unparalleled urgency” and commended them for “their ingenuity, their dedication, and their hard work in coming up with creative solutions to the global challenge to benefit all of us.”

McLellan’s coronavirus research at Dartmouth began in 2014, well before COVID-19—a response to a growing awareness of the risk of a coronavirus pandemic in the wake of earlier SARS and MERS outbreaks.

The researchers set out to understand the structure of the protein spikes that form the characteristic halo or crown around coronaviruses, and then to mutate those spikes to improve their stability. This work and the resulting NIAID, Scripps, and Dartmouth patent are fundamental to most of the COVID-19 vaccines in use today. Through agreements among Dartmouth, Scripps and NIAID, the technology has been made broadly available through nonexclusive licenses to vaccine developers.

A NIAID-prepared acceptance video detailing the story behind the spike protein patent said the development of the technology “exemplifies the significance of the basic research carried out in academic, governmental, and nonprofit laboratories. Such research is the basis for many important scientific innovations that are developed into products to benefit society.”

The Patents for Humanity contenders included innovators with U.S. patents or pending patent applications and were judged on the effectiveness of their invention to address COVID-19, as well as on the technology’s overall impact.

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