“He Helped Save Our World from a Global Pandemic”

Thousands of people are dying every day from COVID-19 around the world, and humanity was in dire need of a vaccine. Darin Edwards ’97 ’10MS ’11 PhD recalled the sense of urgency he felt leading the charge to develop Moderna’s vaccine against COVID-19: “We have to make this technology do what it can. And we have to do it now.”

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

Grand Rounds are a medical school tradition where researchers and clinicians come together to teach and learn from each other to improve the quality of patient care. The Hitt Grand Rounds tournament, named in honor of the former UCF president and first lady, is made possible by the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation. David Odahowski, Edyth Bush’s president and CEO, credited Edwards with the scientific discovery that allowed him to enter this year’s Grand Rounds.

“Thanks to you, the hall is full,” said Odahowsk. “You’ve brought the ‘big’ back to the Grand Round.”

In his presentation, Edwards talked about the scientific steps he and his small team took to develop the vaccine. He said earlier discoveries about messenger RNA (or mRNA) were the reason scientists were able to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 in 11 months. While most vaccines contain weakened or dead bacteria or viruses, mRNA vaccines use a different carrier. They don’t contain a pathogen, so they can’t make you sick. Instead, mRNA serves as a messenger that tells the body to produce a specific protein that signals the immune system to prevent or treat a particular disease.

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While COVID-19 has increased the public’s awareness of mRNA, scientists have actually been working with the technology for decades, Edwards explained. When the complete genetic structure 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- and 16-hour days in the lab with 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 to doctors and scientists from organizations like the National Institutes of Health. The Moderna team had to develop a vaccine that was safe but strong enough to be effective and mass produced.

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

The mRNA vaccine effectively signaled the body’s immune system to produce antibodies against COVID-19 and was cleared from the human system after about 72 hours.

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

According to the CDC, there have been nearly 100 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., resulting in more than 1 million deaths. As an undergraduate and graduate student at UCF’s College of Medicine, Edwards said, he never could have foreseen his role in developing a vaccine against a global pandemic. But he said UCF taught him how to think, ask scientific questions and solve problems. It also gave him the opportunity to get a higher education. He noted that he received a full undergraduate scholarship when Hitt came to be president of UCF and went into the community offering scholarships to talented high school students. Edwards said he never would have been able to afford college without the scholarship.

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He urged the students not to let learning difficulties deter them from pursuing their dreams. “Persistence can’t just be about gritting your teeth and going,” 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 the Hitt Memorial Medal.

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

As a surprise, UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright concluded the event by presenting Edwards with another award. During last week’s Homecoming festivities, UCF Alumni hosted their annual Shining Knights Alumni event. Dr. Edwards received the Michelle Akers Award, recognizing a UCF alumna or graduate whose accomplishments have brought UCF international recognition. He was unable to attend that event, so he received the award in person on stage at the medical college.

“Through creative research and development of next-generation vaccination technology, you have dedicated your career to improving global health and helping others,” Cartwright said. “We are proud to honor Darin Edwards, 1997, 2010 and 2011.

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