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University of Queensland (UQ) researchers collaborate with Moderna to invent fast-tracked, potentially ‘game-changing’ vaccines



University of Queensland (UQ) researchers collaborate with Moderna to invent fast-tracked, potentially 'game-changing' vaccines

Researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ) are set to cooperate with biotechnology organization Moderna to invent vaccines against some of the world’s biggest health threats.

The collaboration is would have liked to lay the basis for fast-tracking vaccines in the event of another pandemic.

Moderna and pharmaceutical organization Pfizer produced the world’s first commercial mRNA vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Under the partnership with Moderna, UQ researchers will work with the US-based organization to develop mRNA vaccines against diseases such as tuberculosis, dengue, malaria, Zika, and HIV.

UQ microbiologist Mark Walker said the scientists wanted to have an experimental vaccine prepared to be tested in animals before the year’s end, with the reasonable target being a virus-causing disease in developing countries, like the West Nile virus.

In basic terms, mRNA vaccines work by teaching cells how to make proteins that will trigger an immune response to a specific virus, bacteria, or parasite.

Professor Walker said UQ had expertise in selecting the best protein, or proteins, on the surface of pathogens that could be consolidated into a vaccine, and in the testing of experimental vaccines in animals.

“You need that background expertise to know what to target and have some experience with animal model testing,” Professor Walker said.

If it works, it could be a game-changer

The organization focuses on Queensland researchers to design an experimental mRNA vaccine against a specific target, which would then be manufactured by Moderna overseas, before testing in animal models back at UQ.

“Moderna has given us access to a long list of potential targets,” Professor Walker said.

“A lot of those are pathogens that are a particular problem in developing countries. We’re looking for unmet clinical needs.

“There’s no guarantee that an mRNA approach will work but the mRNA approach is new and so it’s really worth trying to develop a vaccine using that technology because if it works, then it could be a game-changer.”

Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine required around a year to create and acquire approval for crisis use in the United States.

Professor Walker said the goal in the future would be to cut that time to just 100 days.

“Now it’s possible to explore what works and doesn’t work with mRNA technology before the next pandemic rather than … wait until the next pandemic and then try and develop a vaccine from scratch,” he said.

The Queensland researchers desire to investigate the use of mRNA technology for the development of vaccines against pathogens from various virus families, as well as bacteria and parasites.

“No-one’s yet demonstrated an mRNA vaccine is effective for bacterial infections or parasitic infections,” Professor Walker said.

“We’re excited to start work.”

Potential to save a great many lives

Professor Walker cooperated with Paul Young to broker the partnership with Moderna.

Professor Young drove the team behind UQ’s COVID-19 “molecular clamp” vaccine candidate, which was rejected after it produced false-positive HIV test results.

He portrayed the university’s partnership with Moderna as a “coup” that would conceivably save a large number of lives in developing countries.

“It is also recognition that UQ is a centre of excellence in vaccine research and discovery,” Professor Young said.

He said there were somewhere around 10 disease research projects in progress at UQ that could benefit immediately from the Moderna partnership.

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