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How a Moderna scientist and her team pivoted to make a COVID-19 vaccine

“We had all the pieces in place,” she says.

How a Moderna scientist and her team pivoted to make a COVID-19 vaccine
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“I’m exhausted, but happy,” says Melissa Moore, who led Moderna’s platform team during the company’s successful effort to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, obtaining FDA emergency use authorization on December 18—less than a year after getting the genetic sequence for novel coronavirus. While most vaccines stimulate an immune response by “showing” the immune system a version of a viral protein, Moderna’s COVID vaccine—as well as that made by Pfizer-BioNTech, greenlit by the FDA just one week earlier—uses specially engineered messenger RNA (mRNA) to deliver the genetic instructions for making these proteins, which are then “manufactured” in the cells of recipient. Moore is a noted RNA researcher who left a faculty position leading a research lab at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to join Moderna in 2016. The company was already shepherding several mRNA-based medicines through clinical trials when COVID hit, including immuno-oncology drugs; a regenerative therapy for heart disease; vaccines for Zika, influenza, and CMV; and personalized cancer vaccines. “We had all the pieces in place,” she says, to be able to pivot successfully to manufacturing a COVID vaccine. Like most senior scientists, “I haven’t used a pipette in 30 years,” Moore says. Rather, she sees her role in helping 140 junior colleagues home in on the questions that will yield useful information, design experiments to answer them, and interpret the results. “A lot of it, too, is looking at what’s already out there in the literature,” Moore says. “So much of creation in art is bringing together things that you didn’t think belong together. And that’s very similar to what we do in science.”

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