COVID-19 was killing thousands a day worldwide, and humanity was in desperate need of a vaccine. Darren Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11 Ph.D He recalled the urgency as he led Moderna’s charge to develop a 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 College of Medicine’s third Dr. John C. and Martha Hutt Grand Rounds.
Grand Rounds are a tradition at medical schools, where scientists and clinicians gather to teach and learn from each other with the goal of improving patient care. Hit Grand Rounds, named in honor of UCF’s former president and first lady, is made possible by an endowment from the Edith Bush Charitable Foundation. David Odahowski, president and CEO of Edith Bush, credited Edwards with a scientific breakthrough that allowed Grand Rounds to take place in person this year.
“It’s a full house, thank you,” said Odahousek. “You’ve put the ‘grand’ back in grand rounds.”
In his presentation, Edwards talked about the scientific steps he and his small team took to develop the vaccine. He said scientists could develop a COVID-19 vaccine in 11 months because of previous discoveries about messenger RNA – or mRNA -. While most vaccines contain weakened or dead bacteria or viruses, mRNA vaccines use a different vehicle. They don’t contain pathogens so they can’t make you sick. Instead, the mRNA acts as a messenger that informs the body to make a specific protein that signals the immune system to prevent or treat a specific disease.
Edwards explained that while COVID-19 increased public awareness of miRNAs, scientists had actually been working on the technology for decades. When the complete genetic makeup of the COVID-19 virus was published, “we had everything we needed,” Edwards said. “I spent four years understanding mRNA. We knew our way.”
He described how his team members worked 12 and 16-hour days in a lab covered in protective clothing to develop and test the vaccine. Every day he called from his home office to infectious disease experts from around the world and doctors and scientists from organizations such as 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 said, “but if you can’t make it consistently, it can’t be clinically effective.”
The mRNA vaccine effectively prompts the body’s immune system to make antibodies to COVID-19 and is then eliminated from a person’s system in about 72 hours.
According to the CDC, there have been nearly 100 million Covid-19 cases in the United States, resulting in more than 1 million deaths. As a UCF undergraduate and graduate student in the College of Medicine, Edwards said, he never could have predicted his role in developing a vaccine for the global pandemic. But he said UCF taught him to think, ask scientific questions and solve problems. It also provided them with an opportunity for higher education. He noted that when Hitt arrived as UCF’s president, he received a full undergraduate scholarship and moved into a community offering scholarships to gifted high school students. Edwards said he never would have been able to afford college without the scholarship.
He urged the students not to let the difficulties of their studies discourage them from pursuing their dreams. “Sustainability doesn’t come from just gritting your teeth and walking away,” he said. “Find your passion.”
As part of the Grand Rounds tradition, Deborah German, vice president for health affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, presented Edwards with a Hit commemorative medal.
“It solved one of the most pressing problems in our world,” he said. “He helped save our world from a global pandemic.”
As a surprise, UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright concluded the ceremony with another award to Edwards. During last week’s homecoming festivities, UCF alumni hosted the annual Shining Nights alumni event. Dr. Edwards received the Michelle Akers Award, in recognition of a UCF alumnus or alumna who has brought UCF international recognition through their achievements. He was unable to attend the ceremony, so he received the award in person on stage at the College of Medicine.
“Through innovative research and the 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 Darren Edwards, Class of 1997, 2010 and 2011.”