A team that includes seven researchers at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute has won the 2022 BIAL Award in Biomedicine for a study that demonstrated the effectiveness of mRNA-based vaccine technology, which is now used in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to prevent COVID-19.
The award, from the Portugal-based BIAL Foundation, aims to distinguish a work in biomedicine of exceptional quality and scientific relevance.
The Duke researchers were among 37 co-authors of a paper published in 2017 in the journal Nature that validated a technology developed by Drew Weissman, MD, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania.
"This study was important since it was the first successful modified mRNA vaccine," said Barton Haynes, MD, director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute and the Frederic M. Hanes Distinguished Professor of Medicine. Other Duke co-authors of the study were Laura L. Sutherland, Richard M. Scearce, Robert Parks, Jae-Sung Yu, Charles E. McGee, and Gregory D. Sempowski.
The paper, titled "Zika virus protection by a single low-dose nucleoside-modified mRNA vaccination," describes the complex work to engineer an mRNA vaccine to treat a disease and demonstrates its efficacy in mice and in monkeys.
A portion of the work was performed in the state-of-the-art Duke Regional Biocontainment Laboratory.
Haynes said Weissman is a member of the Duke Consortia for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Development, and the Duke group tested his technology of modified mRNAs in lipid nanoparticles to determine how likely mRNAs would be to work in humans.
"The mRNA Drew had was for the ZIKA virus, and the National Institutes of Health gave us permission to test it on our HIV grant. We found that after one immunization in monkeys, there were high levels of Zika neutralizing antibodies that completely protected the monkeys in the study," Haynes said. "Because of this study, when COVID mRNA vaccines came along, we already knew that they would work."
The BIAL Foundation was created in 1994 by the BIAL pharmaceutical company together with the Council of Rectors of the Portuguese Universities. The BIAL Foundation’s mission is to foster the scientific study of the human being from both the physical and spiritual perspectives.