For months, the world watched and waited for medical companies to create life-saving vaccines to counter the devastating COVID-19 outbreak. When Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna announced their COVID-19 vaccines, the technology they used dominated news headlines and conversations across the globe. What may have flown under the radar was the University of Pennsylvania’s pivotal role, both in the historic development of some of the technology used in two of the vaccines and in the technology’s future innovative applications.
This past spring, Alex DeLaney GR’19, L’22 helped support the University’s technology licensing process, which will ultimately enable scientists to continue exploring the full and exciting potential of this technology’s reach.
Pathbreaking mRNA research
At the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Dr. Drew Weissman’s lab has been researching and working with RNA and messenger RNA (mRNA) for years. In the mid-2000s, Penn licensed the mRNA technology discovered by Weissman and Dr. Katalin Karikóto to companies that would go on to create a number of products; eventually, this included COVID-19 vaccines.
More recently, against the grim backdrop of the worldwide pandemic, Weissman and colleague Dr. Hamideh Parhiz succeeded in creating a way to increase the efficacy and specificity of mRNA delivery. The Penn Center for Innovation (PCI) quickly began strategizing to implement the idea in a commercial setting — and contacted the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Detkin Intellectual Property and Technology Legal Clinic to undertake a patent landscape and market analysis for the new technology.
Experiential learning at the Law School
The Detkin Intellectual Property and Technology Legal Clinic is one of eight experiential learning clinics offered at the Law School, wherein students have the opportunity to hone their skills via guided hands-on application alongside some of the top lawyers in the field.
DeLaney had initially expected that Detkin Clinic assignments would revolve mostly around filing patents; however, when she expressed to Cynthia Dahl, Practice Professor of Law and Director of the Detkin Intellectual Property and Technology Legal Clinic, that she was particularly interested in gaining experience in technology transactions, Dahl noted DeLaney’s expertise in cell molecular biology and connected her with this project for PCI. Ultimately, DeLaney’s strong scientific background would prove to be incredibly helpful as she engaged with PCI and supported them as they developed their strategy for future commercialization of the valuable technology.
“This is something that Penn did to really facilitate cures on the global level during an international pandemic, and it’s happening in part through the Clinic,” DeLaney said. “I received my PhD at Penn, and my PhD training really helped me tackle this problem. Penn has done so much to facilitate my career, and I feel empowered to help other people because of them.”
To serve her client, DeLaney had to understand not only the intellectual property (IP) law related to PCI’s needs, but also the technology that Weissman’s lab created and the complicated industry wherein this technology holds value. To do this, she drew upon her blend of educational trainings, both as a cell molecular biology PhD student and as a law student with particular interest in IP and technology transactions.
DeLaney noted that the most surprising part of the project was learning about the relationships between the different companies in the industry, which she described as a “very complicated space.” Ultimately, being able to quickly get herself up to speed on the technology at issue helped DeLaney to better understand the business proposition, which helped her to provide better legal counsel.
“My skillset made it easier for me to get up to speed more quickly, and I think that’s what made a huge difference for this project. All lawyers are very smart and are able to figure out complicated issues, but it’s about how fast you can figure it out, and also communicating the information in a way that your clients are receptive to,” DeLaney said. “Having a PhD and knowing what it’s like to be on the other side of those conversations helped me talk to my clients in a substantive way.”
Dahl underscored the value of DeLaney’s training in both science and the law, calling her a “walking, talking example of how interdisciplinary lawyering is both important and the wave of the future.” She also emphasized that the Law School is committed to “intentionally training a generation of such lawyers who will be more valuable to their clients because of their interdisciplinary point of view and training.”
Dahl said DeLaney has been “very modest” in recounting how difficult it was to understand this technology and the overall challenge provided by the project.
“I can’t express how amazing it was that Alex was able to deliver for the client,” Dahl said. “The work Alex did is directly helping Penn and a potential licensee company … [and] because of her knowledge and talent, the advice is comparable in quality to what they could have expected to receive from many practitioners who have been practicing for much longer.”
For DeLaney, the project represented an exhilarating legal and academic challenge as well as the unique opportunity to gain a detailed look at this innovative technology and help others understand and embrace the science. Given the expertise she acquired, Michael A. Fitts Professor of Law Polk Wagner invited her to facilitate a question-and-answer session about vaccine technology for her peers in his “Introduction to Intellectual Property” course. During the exchange, DeLaney was able to answer questions about how the vaccines work and help people better understand the science behind this life-saving technology, all within the bounds of her duty of confidentiality.
“I felt like I was better able to talk to my peers about vaccine technology because of this project,” DeLaney said. “People could ask questions about the vaccine and [hopefully] feel more comfortable getting vaccinated and suggesting to their friends and families that they also get vaccinated.”
Looking forward, DeLaney hopes to continue to build her specialization in technology transactions. She remarked that her work in the Detkin Clinic also helped her in her summer associate position, and more broadly, she reflected that the experience has helped her to develop a better understanding of how IP law questions should be integrated into a client’s business strategy.
“It’s helped me to think about companies holistically,” DeLaney said about her assignment counseling PCI. “This was a question about intellectual property, and it could have been very straightforward — what are the patent numbers? — but really what helped the client was understanding the patents in context of all of these other agreements. It was important to me to realize that the client is not really just concerned about intellectual property but instead to keep in mind that you’re helping the client to accomplish a goal with the intellectual property.”