Mason’s Michael Buschmann and team at start-up AexeRNA Therapeutics Inc. pursue patents for improved COVID-19 vaccines

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Michael Buschmann (seated) and his team that includes (l to r) Aarthi Narayanan, Mikell Paige and Caroline Hoemann have developed improved technology that could help make COVID-19 vaccines better and more readily available. Not pictured: Pat Gillevet. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

George Mason University bioengineering professor Michael Buschmann and a team of scientific collaborators have devised improved lipid nanoparticle  technologies to deliver mRNA that could make mRNA vaccines such as the COVID-19 vaccines less costly, with fewer side-effects and more available worldwide.

Vaccines with mRNA use lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) to protect the mRNA and facilitate the immune system’s response to protect people against infection by viruses. This technology has flattened the COVID-19 curve in Western industrialized nations, but the vaccine will need to evolve to reduce side effects and permit worldwide vaccination to eradicate the disease.

Working with George Mason University’s Office of Tech Transfer (OTT) to form the start-up AexeRNA Therapeutics Inc., Buschmann and his team have licensed the commercial rights of four patent applications to the company. The patents address two major LNP technology issues related to novel lipid molecules and novel methods of LNP manufacturing.

“Our solutions seek to make the vaccine more efficient, less costly, and decrease its adverse effects,” said Buschmann, the chair of the Bioengineering Department within Mason’s College of Engineering and Computing.

By modifying the structure and composition of the LNPs, the researchers were able to make the vaccine more efficient, less toxic and easier to make, handle and distribute.

They look forward to now sharing their discovery and helping in the fight against a global pandemic that has killed more than four million people around the world, including more than 600,000 Americans. The current success of mRNA vaccines also paves the way for their use in many other infectious diseases.

“OTT ensures the protection of the intellectual property and works with start-ups like AexeRNA to bring the scientific discoveries to the marketplace,” said Hina Mehta, director of the Office of Technology Transfer.

Buschmann and his partners see tremendous potential for mRNA and vaccines as they may hold the keys to unlocking the technology to fight variants of COVID, influenza, HIV and many other viral pathogens.

Buschmann, Mikell Page from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry within Mason’s College of Science and Drew Weissman, Professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania are the scientific founders of the Mason/University of Pennsylvania spin-off. The group also includes Mason postdoctoral research associate Suman Alishetty and PhD student Manuel Carrasco, University of Pennsylvania postdoctoral research associate Mohamad Alameh and venture capitalist and intellectual property lawyer Thomas Axel Haag.

“We’re excited to move this technology into further preclinical development and scale-up so that mRNA vaccines can be more widely and effectively used in pandemic and non-pandemic settings,” Buschmann said.