“He Helped Save Our World from a Global Pandemic”

COVID-19 kills thousands every day around the world, and people desperately need a vaccine. Darin Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11PhD He recalled the surprise that led to Moderna’s development of a COVID-19 vaccine: “This technology has to do what it can. And we have to do it now.

Edwards, a three-time UCF graduate, is Moderna’s chief medical officer. On Friday, he was the featured speaker at the College of Medicine’s third annual Dr. John C. and Martha Hitt Lecture.

Grand Rounds are a tradition at medical schools where scientists and physicians 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 through grants from the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation. David Odahowski, president and CEO of Edyth Bush, told Edwards about the scientific discovery that made Grand Rounds human-friendly this year.

“It’s a full house, thank you,” Odahowsk said. “You’ve put the ‘grand’ back into the Grand Rounds.”

In his presentation, Edwards talked about the scientific work he and his small team have done to develop a vaccine. He said that the previous discoveries about messenger RNA – or mRNA – are the reason why scientists can create a vaccine for COVID-19 in 11 months. Although most vaccines contain weakened or diseased bacteria or viruses, mRNA vaccines use a different vehicle. They don’t contain any germs to keep you from getting sick. Instead, mRNA is a message that tells the body to make a specific protein that signals the immune system to prevent or treat a specific disease.

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Although COVID-19 has increased understanding of mRNA, scientists have been working on the technology for years, Edwards said. With the release of the complete genetic makeup of the COVID-19 virus, “We have everything we need,” Edwards said. “It took us four years to understand mRNA. We knew the way to go.

He described how members of his team worked 12- and 16-hour days in a lab covered in protective equipment to develop and test the vaccine. Every day he calls from his home office to infectious disease experts around the world and to doctors and scientists and organizations like the National Institutes of Health. The Moderna team needed to develop a vaccine that was safe but effective and in a way that could be mass produced.

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“You can make something,” he said, “but if you can’t make it every time, it doesn’t mean the medicine is going to work.”

The mRNA vaccine effectively directed the body’s immune system to produce antibodies against COVID-19 and then exit the human system within 72 hours.

Darin Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11PhDHe and his small team used mRNA technology to develop Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine in record time.

According to the CDC, there are nearly 100 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and more than one million deaths. Edwards said that as a UCF graduate and graduate student in the College of Medicine, he never predicted his role in developing a vaccine for a global pandemic. But he said UCF taught him to think, ask scientific questions and solve problems. He also had access to higher education. He said he received a full undergraduate scholarship when Hitt became UCF president and went out into the community to offer scholarships to high school students. Edwards said she would never have been able to afford college without the scholarship.

He urged the students not to let the difficulties of their education stop them from achieving their dreams. “The patient can’t just grit his teeth and walk away,” he said. “Find your passion.”

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As part of the Grand Rounds tradition, Deborah German, vice president for Medical Affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, presented Edwards with the Hitt Memorial Medal.

“He solved one of the most serious problems in the world,” he said. “He helped save our world from the death of the world.”

Unsurprisingly, UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright closed the ceremony by presenting Edwards with another award. During last week’s Homecoming festivities, UCF Alumni hosted the annual Shining Knights Alumni Conference. Dr. Edwards received the Michelle Akers Award, which recognizes a UCF student or student who has brought international recognition to UCF through their work. 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 development of future vaccination technology, you have dedicated your career to improving global health and helping others,” Cartwright said. “We are proud to honor Darin Edwards, class of 1997, 2010 and 2011.”


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