Vanderbilt research team plays key role in early-stage clinical trial of COVID-19 vaccine

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN/AP) – The first COVID-19 vaccine tested in the U.S. stimulated people’s immune systems just the way scientists had hoped.

The vaccine, called mRNA-1273, was co-developed by Moderna Inc. in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health.

The Vanderbilt University Medical Center research team led by coronavirus expert Mark Denison, MD, Edward Claiborne Stahlman Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, is a key contributor to the Phase I trial testing.

The researchers are analyzing the ability of antibodies in blood serum samples from trial participants to “neutralize” live SARS-CoV-2 and prevent the virus from infecting cultured cells.

Researchers reported findings from the first 45 volunteers on Tuesday.

The volunteers developed what are called neutralizing antibodies in their bloodstream — molecules key to blocking infection — at levels comparable to those found in people who survived COVID-19, the research team reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Our results show that the vaccine induces a robust neutralizing antibody response in healthy volunteers, which looks similar to responses in people who had COVID-19,” said Jim Chappell, MD, PhD, research associate professor of Pediatrics and director of the vaccine and antibody studies in the Denison laboratory. “This work, in conjunction with the results of other laboratory studies at the NIH and the favorable safety outcomes among vaccine recipients, supports advancement of mRNA-1273 into a large Phase III clinical trial.”

The Phase III trial, which is expected to begin later this summer, will evaluate the effectiveness of the vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19, compared to no vaccine.

A release from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center explains the science behind the vaccine.

The mRNA-1273 vaccine uses genetic material (mRNA) encoding the SARS-COV-2 spike protein — the protein that protrudes crown-like from the virus surface, giving coronaviruses their name. The spike protein binds to receptors on human cells and enables virus entry. It is required for infection and is the target of many candidate SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.

The idea of the mRNA vaccine is for a person’s cells to use the mRNA instructions to produce spike protein and stimulate an immune response against it. Then, if the vaccinated person is exposed to SARS-CoV-2, their immune system should recognize and neutralize it to prevent infection.

If the mRNA vaccine technology is successful, it might become a routine way to quickly develop vaccines for any emerging viral threat.

The concept and design of the spike protein encoded in the Moderna vaccine was developed by Barney Graham, MD, PhD, a former Vanderbilt faculty member who is now deputy director of the NIAID Vaccine Research Center.

In addition to Denison and Chappell, team members participating in the studies of mRNA-1273 include Laura Stevens, MS, Andrea Pruijssers, PhD, Tia Hughes, MS, and Xiaotao Lu, MS. The studies at VUMC are supported by the NIH-funded Vanderbilt Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit (VTEU) directed by Buddy Creech, MD, MPH (grant AI148684), the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research directed by Gordon Bernard, MD (grant TR002243) and the Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Stay with News 2 for continuing coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic.


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