COVID-19 was killing thousands a day around the world, and humanity was in desperate need of a vaccine. Darin Edwards ’97’ 10MS ’11PhD recalled the urgency he felt as he led the charge to create Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine: “We have to make this technology do what it can do. And we have to do it now. “
Edwards, a three-time UCF graduate, is Moderna’s director of immunology. On Friday, he was the featured speaker at the third Grand Round of the College of Medicine Dr. John C. and Martha Hitt.
Grand Rounds are a tradition in medical schools, where scientists and doctors gather to teach and learn from each other with the goal of increasing excellence in patient care. The Hitt Grand Rounds, named in honor of the former president and first lady of UCF, is made possible by an endowment from the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation. David Odahowski, Edyth Bush president and CEO, credited Edwards with a scientific discovery that allowed Grand Rounds to be personal this year.
“It’s a full house, thank you,” Odahowsk said. “You’ve put the ‘grand’ back in Grand Round.”
In his presentation, Edwards talked about the scientific steps he and his small team took to create the vaccine. He said previous discoveries about messenger RNA – or mRNA – were the reason scientists could create a COVID-19 vaccine in 11 months. While most vaccines contain weakened or dead bacteria or virus, mRNA vaccines use a different vehicle. They do not contain the pathogen so they cannot make you sick. Instead, mRNA is a messenger that tells the body to make a specific protein that signals the immune system to prevent or treat a specific disease.
Although COVID-19 has brought more public awareness to mRNA, scientists had actually been working on the technology for decades, Edwards explained. When the entire genetic makeup of the COVID-19 virus was published, “We had everything we needed,” Edwards said. “I had spent four years understanding mRNA. We knew the approach to take.”
He described how members of his team worked 12 and 16 hour days in the laboratory covered in protective gear to develop and test the vaccine. Every day he made calls from his home office to infectious disease experts around the world and doctors and scientists with organizations like the National Institutes of Health. The Moderna team had to create a vaccine that was safe but strong enough to be effective and in a way that could be mass produced.
“You can make something,” he says, “but if you can’t manufacture it consistently, it’s not one that can be medically effective.”
The mRNA vaccine effectively signaled the body’s immune system to create antibodies to COVID-19 and was then out of a person’s system in about 72 hours.
According to the CDC, the United States has had nearly 100 million cases of COVID-19, resulting in more than 1 million deaths. Edwards said that as a UCF undergraduate and graduate student in the College of Medicine, he never could have predicted his role in developing a vaccine for a global pandemic. But he said UCF taught him how to think, ask scientific questions and solve problems. It had also given him the opportunity to get a higher education. He noted that he received a full undergraduate scholarship when Hitt arrived as UCF president and went into the community offering scholarships to gifted high school students. Edwards said he would never have been able to afford college without the scholarship.
He encouraged students not to let the difficulties of their education discourage them from realizing their dreams. “Persistence can’t just grit your teeth and go,” he said. “Find your passion.”
As part of the Grand Round tradition, Deborah German, vice president of Health Affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, presented Edwards with a Hitt commemorative medal.
“It solved one of the most dangerous problems of our world,” he said. “He helped save our world from a global pandemic.”
As a surprise, UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright closed the event by presenting Edwards with another award. During last week’s Homecoming festivities, UCF Alumni hosted the annual Shining Knights Alumni Event. Dr. received Edwards Michelle Akers Award, to recognize a UCF alumna or alumna who has brought international acclaim to UCF through their achievements. He could not be present at that event, so he received the award in person on the stage of the College of Medicine.
“Through creative research and development of next-generation vaccination technology, you have dedicated your career to improving global health and helping others,” said Cartwright. “We are proud to honor Darin Edwards, Class of 1997, 2010 and 2011.”