When Philip Fergner was a kid, science was cool in rural Michigan in the 1950s. Watch Mr. Wizard, a Walt Disney TV special focused on the wonders of space exploration, features fun experiments, Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village celebrates America’s wit and ingenuity, and Sputnik drives the country into action. I did.

The belief that science can and should make life better has always been deep in Fergner, and his painstaking work over the last 35 years has been very surprisingly effective against COVID-19. Lay the foundation for a typical mRNA vaccine. A professor at the University of California, Irvine, has seen his work get off the ground in unexpected ways. Soon, along with the German creator of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine and four others, King Felipe and Queen Letizia of Spain rub their elbows to honor him. — For remarkable progress in technical and scientific research.

Fergner, director of UCI’s Vaccine Research and Development Center and Protein Microarray Institute and Training Facility, received the Crown Princess Asturias Award in Spain for his contributions. The award includes a prize of $ 60,000 and a spectacular reception in Oviedo in October, celebrated by the entire town.

Although not as famous as the Nobel Prize, Fergner had to do some research on his own, but the Asturias Award is awarded each year in eight categories, including arts, social sciences, literature, sports and science. They were created in 1980 and were awarded by the Princess of Asturias Foundation, a private non-profit organization.

“It’s going to be really thrilling,” said Fergner, a professor of physiology and biophysics dwellings at UCI. “What a gift. I don’t have to keep telling the lab members what great work they are doing — the Spaniards are talking to them too. Great.”


Those who are amazed at the speed of development of the COVID-19 vaccine do not understand that it all actually started 35 years ago. Fergner’s work paved the way.

After earning his PhD, he received his PhD in biochemistry from Michigan State University in 1978 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia’s Biophysics Laboratory, where he worked on liposome research. Liposomes are small round membranes of fat that can wrap a drug and carry it to cells.

“It was the heyday of biotechnology, and entrepreneurs were very interested in these liposomes for pharmaceutical applications,” he said. “It was the beginning for scientists to understand what they really are and how they can be used.”

Soon he joined Syntex Research as a staff scientist. So, on a beautiful campus next to Stanford University, he developed lipofection technology that uses lipid nanoparticles to deliver DNA to cells. It was a tremendous advance — and a surprisingly simple matter of attraction.

“These positively charged liposomes are like magnets, and because all cells are negatively charged, they attach to the cells and can improve the delivery of all kinds of drugs,” he says. I did. “Therefore, if you want to deliver the drug to cells, put it in a positively charged liposome. We have done a lot of such experiments.”

It was in the 1980s, and the promise of gene therapy, which uses genetic material to treat or treat illness, has become the Holy Grail. If liposomes are very good at transporting drugs to cells, are they also good at transporting genes to cells?

Armida B. Azurin prepares Pfizer-BioNTech COIVD-19 vaccine in Riverside County in April. (Photo courtesy of Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise / SCNG)

Okay. Fergner put the DNA in those liposomes, and indeed, the cells began to produce the protein encoded by the gene. He is enthusiastic about the next step, gene therapy experiments in animals, and never forgets that his boss said, “Gene therapy will be something for 2020.” That was in 1987, when the company needed to work on products that would help it generate foreseeable future revenue.

He soon headed to San Diego to become director of product development and founder of Vical Inc. In collaboration with former researchers at the University of California, San Diego, they were able to deliver DNA to mice, which produced new proteins. “The gene was expressed,” he wondered. “All these things, they worked for the first time.”

Then there was another big surprise. Nanoparticle-free “naked DNA” can also be expressed in mouse muscle tissue. “It was very eccentric,” he said. “Putting DNA into cultured cells does nothing. But in animals, DNA can be injected and expressed. When injected into muscle, the membrane is temporarily destroyed and the DNA Will be able to invade. “

Fergner’s discovery led to the development of a DNA vaccine, and Bical became a “naked DNA vaccine company.” When it merged with Brickell Biotech in 2019, it had been in business for about 30 years. Companies such as BioNTec and Moderna have built on this work to create COVID-19 vaccines using single-strand RNA instead of double-stranded DNA.

“Our awards give us hope because they devotedly constitute the recognition of those who are dedicated to achieving the joint progress and well-being of society as a whole. “Because,” Princess Asturias said in a statement.

What’s next?

Fergner came to Irvine in 2002. Here he studied the proteome, the total complement of proteins expressed or may be expressed by cells, tissues, or infectious microorganisms, and began producing the first microarray of human proteome. This is a lab tool used to simultaneously detect antibodies to thousands of individual proteins.

Philip Fergner presents a microarray card used to test blood samples for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses. (Courtesy: UCI)

Growing up in the agricultural community, he said he became a very practical scientist. “In agriculture, we have to make something that others can use right away, so I think that’s what we’ve done in the lab. We learn things, but we I want to use the products of what I have learned, “he said.

He has authored more than 250 articles cited more than 38,000 times and holds 50 US patents. He loves playing Spanish classical guitar and was torn apart when he was young about whether to pursue music or science. The world may be grateful that he chose the latter.

Today’s COVID-19 vaccine is the culmination of decades of research by hundreds of scientists and numerous biotechnology companies, backed by billions of dollars in public and private investment.

“For 35 years, we have prepared science to react and get successful results,” Fergner said. “We continue to work on vaccines here — it’s great to see vaccine science evolve and there’s a lot to do. More targets, understanding how they work And more work to be done to understand and mitigate side effects and make them even safer than they are now. We will learn more about the immune system and prepare better for the next time. “

UCI professor wins international prize for work that led to COVID-19 vaccines – Press Enterprise Source link UCI professor wins international prize for work that led to COVID-19 vaccines – Press Enterprise

Source link