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LSU Health Shreveport technology plays important role in Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine development
BATON ROUGE - LSU research helped lay the foundation for quick development of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19, the first vaccine distributed in the U.S.
The Pfizer vaccine uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, to prompt the body to prepare to ward off the virus.
Long before COVID-19 existed, Robert Rhoads, then an LSU medical school professor, led a team of scientists researching the possibility of using mRNA as a vaccine to trigger an immune response.
That prepares the immune system defend the body if a person gets the coronavirus.
Rhoads, who is now an LSU professor emeritus and lives in North Carolina, said his group of researchers worked with counterparts from the University of Warsaw to develop processes for using mRNA in this way. Rhoads holds seven patents connected to this work.
BioNTech licensed two of the patents, but was not pursuing coronavirus vaccines.
"BioNTech was working on cancer and influenza vaccines. Then COVID popped up," Rhoads said.
But by that time, the company had already proven in a 2017 clinical trial that this kind of vaccine could work.
In 2019, BioNTech partnered with Pfizer to develop a flu vaccine and sublicensed LSU's patented processes for that.
That work allowed the company to switch gears and have a COVID-19 vaccine ready for testing in just a few weeks.
“Had it not been for their previous research on using mRNA vaccines against cancer, BioNTech would not have been able to pivot so quickly to create vaccines against COVID-19 in partnership with Pfizer,” Rhoads said. “The technology was already in place, which is why they were able to come up with COVID-19 vaccines almost overnight.”
Rhoads considers the bigger picture rather than focusing on his and his colleagues' achievements.
"I'm just glad there are vaccines. That to me is the exciting part, not that we played a part in it, that we are going to get ourselves out of the pandemic and fairly quickly," he said.
The retired professor also said the most exciting part about this research is that the same technology can be also be used to fight off new viruses in the future.
"It's so quick to react to a new threat," Rhoads said.
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