The University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio said this week that they have entered into an exclusive license and sponsored-research agreement with Merck to develop a vaccine for chlamydia.
According to the schools, the deal is noteworthy because it is the first revenue-producing license for any technology developed at UTSA.
It is also the first multiple-institution license secured with the help of South Texas Technology Management, a regional technology-management office established last year to negotiate licensing deals for four UT institutions located in the southern part of the state.
Under the agreement, Merck will provide unspecified funding to and collaborate with researchers at UTSA and HSC to develop a vaccine against the sexually transmitted bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis based on prior collaborative research performed at the institutions.
C. trachomatis is responsible for nearly 2.3 million cases of infection in the US population, primarily in the 14 to 39 age group, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bacterium frequently causes only mild or moderate symptoms in infected individuals, especially women, who as a result may not receive treatment.
However, long-term infection in women can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, complications for newborns, and infertility. Certain antibiotics can eradicate the pathogen in most patients, but treated individuals are highly susceptible to re-infection if exposed to the pathogen via unprotected sex with an infected partner.
A team led by HSC's Guangming Zhong and UTSA's Ashlesh Murthy and Bernard Arulanandam had previously demonstrated in animal models that a vaccine comprising a select group of recombinant C. trachomatis antigens can accelerate bacterial clearance and preserve female reproductive function.
"Through many years of research in chlamydial biology, pathogenesis, and immunology, we have accumulated sufficient expertise to take chlamydia vaccine research to a new level," Zhong said in a statement.
John Shiver, vice president and head of Merck Research Laboratories' infectious disease franchise, said in a statement that "external scientific collaborations such as this are an essential and integral aspect of our research strategy. We look forward to working closely to translate the promising early results of the UT team into an investigational candidate that together we can advance toward the clinic."
South Texas Technology Management served as the sole representative for HSC and UTSA in developing a sponsored-research work plan and licensing agreement with Merck over the course of 14 months.
Since its inception, STTM has served as the full-time tech-transfer agent for HSC, and eventually expanded to provide contract tech-management and -transfer services to three other UT-system schools — UTSA, UT-Pan American, and UT-Brownsville — through an inter-institutional and formal governance agreement finalized in November.
In September, STTM brokered a licensing agreement between HSC and local startup Azaya Therapeutics for a nano-scale, lipid-sphere-based cancer therapy invented and pre-clinically tested by HSC faculty.
However, the Merck agreement is STTM's most significant deal to date, the first to involve research from an institution other than HSC, and UTSA's first revenue-bearing research and license agreement, Kenneth Porter, director of STTM and assistant vice president for technology transfer at HSC, told BTW this week.
According to Porter, HSC "has had a tech-transfer legacy dating back to the 1980s," and UTSA has had a patent office for the last 10 years, though it had never outlicensed any of its technologies. The other two STTM partners, UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville, "have limited resources" for tech-transfer, Porter said.
"Inter-institutional partnerships lend themselves to generating interdisciplinary solutions, which in this case is an unmet medical need," Porter said. "STTM occupies a unique position among UT institutions and can facilitate the activities of such partnerships."
Under the terms of the Merck agreement, Merck paid STTM an undisclosed upfront fee in exchange for an exclusive license to the technology, and reimbursed it for past patent expenses. The license is structured to provide undisclosed payments to STTM as vaccine candidates advance through development and are commercialized.
HSC is the lead institution on the agreement, and as such, Porter said STTM receives a portion of the upfront licensing fee and future payments that would be due to HSC based on contribution to the invention.
STTM also directs a portion of Merck's payments to UTSA after receiving an undisclosed predetermined amount for its services. Under UT system policy, HSC and UTSA then each take half of whatever revenues they receive and provide half to the faculty inventors: an unusually large faculty royalty-sharing policy that the UT system believes provides incentive for faculty entrepreneurship.
STTM believes it can expand its tech-transfer collective model to other institutions in the area. For instance, STTM and the four UT institutions it represents have also conducted extensive cooperative research projects with San Antonio's Southwest Research Institute, but have yet to establish a formal tech-transfer partnership with the institute.
"The UT system has several small campuses like UT-Tyler and UT-El Paso that have limited resources, and we certainly offer advice to them on a regular basis," Porter said. "Who knows if those will mature into a full partnership?"
He also said that STTM might be able to bring other San Antonio-based institutions into the fold, such as the University of the Incarnate Word and St. Mary's School of Law, which next year will be providing STTM with an intern.
"We'd be willing to talk with any institution about how we can share our resources and expertise," Porter said.