By LINDA HULL
Rotary Club of Los Alamos
Dr. Sandy Farmer of Pfizer Pharmaceutical was the featured speaker via Zoom at the Jan. 5 meeting of the Rotary Club of Los Alamos.
In his presentation, How the COVID-19 Vaccine Came to Be: A Confluence of Innovation Along Many Dimensions, Farmer outlined the evolution of vaccine development. He explained that although the world’s first vaccine was administered in 1798 to reduce the spread of smallpox, it wasn’t until the late 1960s and into the 1970s that purified forms were steadily developed to eliminate use of live viruses which can generate active disease in some patients.
Farmer expanded upon the complex ways in which immunity works, in particular the response to a viral infection, which involves “recognition and destruction of the viral particles and infected cells”. Sometimes a response by the innate immune system, which defends against non-specific threats, causes damage to surrounding tissues. The immune response also includes ingestion and processing of viral peptide fragments, presentation to helper T cells, and their activation of the adaptive immune system, which defends against specific threats, then involving cytotoxic T-cells and antibody-producing B cells.
Over time, vaccines have been made from live and inactivated viruses; recombinantly expressed viral surface antigens; genetically modified, live surrogate viruses; and mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) antigens, and other forms. There has been a “shift away from live viruses to increased use of recombinant and cell-culture technologies and viral surrogate antigens in various forms.” Just a few of the technologies that have enhanced vaccine development are gene editing, gene therapy and novel therapeutic modalities, cell culturing and immuno-oncology. In fact, a great deal of funding for vaccine development comes through cancer research.
mRNA vaccines hold particular promise because “designing the appropriate RNA construct is straightforward,” Farmer remarked, and it is “fast, easy, and highly reliable”. It also is “immunogenic and short-lived once inside a human cell. The mRNA vaccine accurately mimics the immune system, but without the risk of using a disease-causing virus.”
mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 contain synthetic mRNA. Once inside the body, the mRNA instructs cells to produce the spike protein found on the virus. The body recognizes the spike protein as an invader, and starts producing antibodies against it. If the antibodies later encounter the COVID-19 virus, they are ready to destroy it. Essentially, the mRNA vaccine is “fast, scalable, with a reusable platform and a small manufacturing footprint.”
Benefits that have come from the urgency to produce a COVID-19 vaccine include faster development of new COVID vaccines, as well as faster regulatory approval and broader acceptance for future vaccines.
Dr. Farmer was the executive director in Worldwide Research and Development at Pfizer from 2014 to 2019. Before joining Pfizer, he served as Global Head of the Scientific Information Management Expert Center at Boehringer Ingelheim. His work has involved information technology and artificial intelligence research and development.
Farmer has been involved in drug discovery research for more than 20 years and co-authored more than 60 scientific articles. He has extensive international experience in integrating new computational and experimental technologies to advance drug discovery. Farmer holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Kentucky, an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University and a BA in chemistry and German from Duke University. He lives in Santa Fe.
To learn more about the Rotary Club of Los Alamos, a charitable service organization, contact: President Laura Gonzales at 505.699.5880 or Membership Chair Skip King at 505.662.8832.