SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - As the first doses of the historic Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are administered to critical frontline healthcare workers across the country — the development of the vaccine has a direct connection to LSU Health Sciences Center.
The vaccine uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, which essentially provides instructions to the body on how to fight the novel coronavirus. According to the CDC, there are no licensed mRNA vaccines in the United States.
Dr. Robert Rhoads, professor and emeritus chairman of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at LSU Health, developed key components of the mRNA over years of work. Specifically, a ‘cap’ which helps stabilize the RNA “and its conversion to protein that the immune system then uses to generate an immune response.”
“One of the things that’s very unique about this kind of biology is that mRNAs are abundant in the body and there are proteins called enzymes that typically chew up that mRNA and get rid of it,” said Dr. Chris Kevil, vice-chancellor of research for LSU Health Sciences Center. “Those cap analogs help prevent those enzymes from chewing up the mRNA.”
BioNTech, the German biotechnology company partnering with Pfizer on the vaccine’s creation, licensed these technologies developed by Dr. Rhoads and ultimately patented by LSU Health Shreveport.
Before the pandemic, BioNTech was previously using the components developed by Dr. Rhoads and LSU Health for cancer research.
Kevil stated LSU Health Sciences Center’s contribution to the creation of the vaccine is remarkable — especially considering the rate at which the vaccine was developed during a global pandemic.
“The ability to contribute technology that’s really indispensable for the creation of an RNA vaccine is unique,” Kevil explained. “There’s only a handful of institutions in the world who’ve done this, so this demonstrates our abilities and our expertise.”
Kevil believes this revolutionary mRNA vaccine could alter the future of vaccines going forward to better address the next pandemic.
“In the past, we used to use attenuated or inactive versions of either bacteria or a virus,” Kevil said. “Now, we can identify a genetic code, or a piece of the pathogen, create an mRNA vaccine in record time... and get to an effective vaccine far faster than we have ever done before.”