Johns Hopkins to establish new RNA innovation center

Blue double helix close-up on white background
Blue double helix close-up on white background
Johns Hopkins to establish new RNA innovation center in collaboration with TriLink BioTechnologies

The center, anchored in the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, will speed the cycle of RNA innovation in pursuit of advanced therapies

Johns Hopkins University, home to considerable expertise in RNA sciences and therapeutic development, has announced a new academic collaboration with TriLink BioTechnologies , part of Maravai LifeSciences , designed to accelerate transformational research in RNA therapeutics and discovery. This includes the creation of a new center in the university’s Whiting School of Engineering and access to TriLink’s leading RNA synthesis technology, which will accelerate research and therapeutic development.

RNA technology has emerged as an area of extraordinary potential in biology and medicine, including as a therapeutic modality to treat conditions considered untreatable with conventional drugs, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and certain types of cancer. RNA technology was also instrumental in the development of COVID-19 vaccines, as recognized by the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine , which went to Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania "for their discoveries concerning base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19." RNA-based therapeutics promise to shorten the time from discovery to intervention, accelerating cycles of innovation and providing new approaches to refractory diseases.

"We are excited to work with TriLink BioTechnologies to build a local research community focused on breakthroughs in RNA applications, from nucleic acid therapeutics and vaccines to cell therapies and beyond," said Ed Schlesinger , dean of the Whiting School. "We expect that, together, we can develop products and establish companies to transform human health."

TriLink’s investment includes direct funding for the center as well as the use of its propriety in vitro transcription technology, CleanScript, which will enable Hopkins researchers to advance mRNA development by seamlessly transitioning from research-grade mRNA to clinical-grade mRNA. TriLink will also provide technical expertise and access to other critical discovery and manufacturing supplies, lowering the barriers to discovery and application.

Jeff Coller , Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of RNA Biology and Therapeutics at Johns Hopkins University and a leader in messenger RNA stability and translation, will serve as the inaugural director of the center, which will be anchored in the Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) and open this spring/summer. The center will bring together Johns Hopkins experts in RNA biology, genetic medicine, drug delivery, and biotechnology under one roof, serving as a training center for the next generation of RNA investigators and as a nexus for RNA researchers across the university’s divisions.

"My career has been dedicated to the discovery of genetic medicines, and harnessing RNA will be a critical driver in the next generation of health care delivery," Coller said. "We have seen the impact of RNA technology with the RNA COVID vaccines. Leveraging TriLink’s technology and expertise right here on campus is a critical means by which we can ensure that our scientific advances reach patients."

Coller has worked closely with INBT directors Hai-Quan Mao and Sashank Reddy to develop plans for the center. Reddy and Mao saw an opportunity to catalyze discovery in this area by facilitating the design, manufacture, and delivery of custom RNA molecules. Currently it can take months to access the raw materials and packaged nucleotides necessary for researchers to carry out critical experiments, while sourcing high-quality clinical-grade raw materials can also be challenging. Furthermore, needed expertise is currently siloed with disease-oriented researchers, RNA biologists, nanomaterials scientists, and quality and manufacturing engineers rarely working in a coordinated fashion.

"By serving as a central university hub for RNA research, we hope to foster cross-disciplinary learning and accelerate discovery, innovation, and commercialization in this burgeoning area," Reddy said. "We are particularly excited to engage with TriLink Biotechnologies-a world leader in RNA manufacture-to create RNA innovations and increase their chance of translational success."

Drew Burch, president, Nucleic Acid Products, Maravai LifeSciences, added, "The collaboration with Johns Hopkins reinforces our commitment to advancing nucleic acid-based therapies. Our participation in this center of excellence allows TriLink to share its deep knowledge and expertise in nucleic acid production, helping to enable these researchers at Hopkins with the tools they need to develop advanced therapies to treat patients."

Added Paul Nkansah, head of corporate partnerships for Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures , the university’s commercialization and industry collaboration arm: "Corporate collaborations are most effective when built upon several dimensions of alignment. TriLink BioTechnologies and Johns Hopkins have a number of complementary goals and expertise, and this collaboration promises to create a new model for how industry expertise can be brought to bear to advance academic goals, human health, and commercial opportunities."