“He Helped Save Our World from a Global Pandemic”

With COVID-19 killing thousands of people a day around the world, humanity was in desperate need of a vaccine. Darin Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11 Ph.D He recalled the sense of urgency he felt while leading the creation of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine: “We had to do what this technology could do. We must do it now. “

Edwards, a three-time UCF graduate, is Moderna’s director of immunology. On Friday, the College of Medicine’s third Dr. He was a featured speaker at the John C. and Martha Hitt Grand Rounds.

Grand Rounds are a tradition in medical schools where scientists and physicians gather to teach and learn from each other with the goal of enhancing excellence in patient care. HIT Grand Rounds, named to honor UCF’s former president and first lady, is made possible by an endowment from the Edith Bush Charitable Foundation. Edith Bush’s president and CEO, David Odahowski, credited Edwards with a scientific discovery that allowed the Grand Rounds to be personalized this year.

“It’s a full house, thanks to you,” Odahosk said. “You brought the ‘grand’ back to the grand round.”

In his presentation, Edwards talked about the scientific steps he and his small team took to create the vaccine. He said earlier discoveries about messenger RNA or mRNA allowed scientists to create a Covid-19 vaccine within 11 months. While most vaccines contain weakened or dead bacteria or virus, mRNA vaccines use a different vehicle. They do not contain pathogens, so they cannot make you sick. Instead, mRNA acts as a messenger that tells the body to make a specific protein that signals the immune system to prevent or treat a particular disease.

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While COVID-19 heightened public awareness of mRNA, scientists had been working on the technology for decades, Edwards explained. When the full genetic makeup of the COVID-19 virus was published, “we had everything we needed,” Edwards said. “I spent four years trying to understand mRNA. We knew the approach to take.

He described how members of his team worked 12- to 16-hour days in the lab to develop and test the vaccine. Each day, from his home office, he called on epidemiologists from around the world, as well as physicians and scientists at organizations such as the National Institutes of Health. The Moderna team needed to create a vaccine that was safe, yet effective and mass-producible.

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“You can make something,” he said, “but if you can’t make it consistently, it’s not going to be medically effective.”

The mRNA vaccine effectively signals the body’s immune system to produce antibodies to COVID-19 that are then cleared from a person’s system within 72 hours.

Darin Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11 Ph.DHe explained how he and his small team used mRNA technology to create 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 it has caused more than 1 million deaths. As a UCF graduate and graduate student in the College of Medicine, Edwards said he never could have predicted his role in developing a vaccine for the worldwide pandemic. But UCF taught us to think, ask scientific questions and solve problems, he said. It also gave him an opportunity for higher education. He noted that when Hitt became president of UCF and went out into the community to offer scholarships to talented high school students, he was awarded a full undergraduate scholarship. Edwards said she would never have been able to afford college without the scholarship.

He urged the students not to let the difficulties of education discourage them from pursuing their dreams. “Consistency can’t just bite the bullet and go away,” he said. “Find your passion.”

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As part of the Grand Rounds tradition, Deborah German, vice president for health affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, presented Edwards with the Hitt commemorative medal.

“He solved one of the most dangerous problems in our world,” she said. “He helped save our world from a global pandemic.”

Surprisingly, UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright closed the event with another award for Edwards. During last week’s Homecoming festivities, UCF alumni held their annual Shining Nights alumni event. Dr. Edwards received the Michelle Akers Award, which recognizes a UCF alumnus or alumnus who has brought international recognition to UCF through their accomplishments. He was unable to attend the event, so he received the award at the College of Medicine venue.

“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 Darrin Edwards, Class of 1997, 2010 and 2011.”

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