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UTRF wins two national awards from AUTM for work of Peter Tsai, Michael Whitt

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Technology transfer offices exist for a reason, and that is to ensure that promising inventions see the light of day where they can bring benefit to individuals and society.

So, readers should celebrate the fact that the University of Tennessee Research Foundation (UTRF) recently received national recognition from the “Better World Project” of AUTM, the 3,100-member organization of technology managers from around the globe.

The two recognitions – one for the work of a retired researcher at UT, Knoxville and the other for work by an active faculty member at the UT Health Science Center in Memphis – come as a result of the university’s efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The “2020 Legend Award” was given for the work of UTRF and Peter Tsai, the long-time and retired researcher at UTK who is the architect behind the critical technology for N95 respirators. First created 30 years ago, the N95 mask is now essential in protecting millions of healthcare workers and others against COVID-19.

When the pandemic hit a little more than a year ago, UTRF connected Tsai and his research to a large number of facilities around the world, and he even came out of retirement to share his expertise with many companies interested in producing his charged nonwoven fabric or in scaling up production. Tsai has a long history with UTRF, holding 12 U.S. patents and being responsible for more than 20 commercial license agreements that UTRF has executed.

“We are honored AUTM’s ‘Better World Project’ has given UTRF the ‘2020 Legend Award’,” said UTRF Vice President Maha Krishnamurthy. “Dr. Peter Tsai is a hero of the COVID-19 pandemic. While his original research was critical in the creation of the N95 respirator, it has been his continued contributions to the field that showcase the high-caliber of researchers and innovations we have coming out of UT and into the market.”

The second award recognized work of Michael Whitt of the UT Health Science Center in Memphis for his work in “Gene Pool Innovations.” He serves as Associate Dean, Chair of the Department of Medical Education in the College of Medicine, and Professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry. In the mid-1990s, Whitt developed and patented a reverse genetics system that uses vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) to allow researchers to study highly dangerous viruses in safer conditions.

When the pandemic hit, Whitt adapted his unique pseudotyping technology to aid in vaccine development. Both Moderna and Pfizer use his VSV platform to test the inhibitory effects of the antibodies generated after a COVID vaccination. Last year, UTRF facilitated access to Whitt’s technology by entering into agreements with multiple companies for transfer of the VSV pseudotypes through licensing and material transfer agreements and building distribution partnerships to provide the VSV platform globally. More than 170 companies and universities in over 30 different countries have used these materials during the pandemic.

“We are thrilled AUTM’s ‘Better World Project’ recognized the significance of Dr. Michael Whitt’s research and contributions toward vaccine development,” said UTRF Vice President Richard Magid. “Dr. Whitt’s willingness to pivot his work in the face of the pandemic is admirable. This recognition will likely bring even more attention to the forward-thinking researchers and incredible innovations at UTHSC.”

These recognitions emphasize UTRF’s commitment to moving innovative UT technology out of the lab and into the real world to make it a better place for all. Since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers across the UT System have been diligently using their knowledge, skills and technology to stop the spread of COVID-19 and contribute to vaccine development and, in the process, likely saving countless lives.

“AUTM’s recognition validates the high-quality research and technology coming out of the University of Tennessee and its positive impact on society,” said UTRF President Stacey Patterson. “At UTRF, we promote the commercialization of UT intellectual property and encourage an entrepreneurial culture. But our mission isn’t just about identifying, protecting and licensing UT technology . . .  it’s about getting innovation into the hands of the people who need it.”

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