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ABC News
Janelle Miles

University of Queensland researchers partner with Moderna to create fast-tracked, potentially 'game-changing' vaccines

If successful, vaccines could be fast-tracked to save thousands of lives in developing nations. (Supplied)

Researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ) are set to partner with biotechnology company Moderna to develop vaccines against some of the world's biggest health threats.

The collaboration is hoped to lay the groundwork for fast-tracking vaccines in the event of another pandemic.

Moderna and pharmaceutical company Pfizer produced the world's first commercial mRNA vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Under the partnership with Moderna, UQ scientists will work with the US-based company to develop mRNA vaccines against diseases such as tuberculosis, dengue, malaria, Zika and HIV.

UQ microbiologist Mark Walker said the researchers hoped to have an experimental vaccine ready to be tested in animals before the end of the year, with the likely target being a virus-causing disease in developing countries, such as the West Nile virus.

In simple terms, mRNA vaccines work by teaching cells how to make proteins that will trigger an immune response to a particular virus, bacteria or parasite.

UQ microbiologist Mark Walker says the partnership could lead to "game-changing" vaccines. (ABC News)

Professor Walker said UQ had expertise in selecting the most effective protein, or proteins, on the surface of pathogens that could be incorporated into a vaccine, and in the testing of experimental vaccines in animals.

"You need that background expertise to know what to target and have some experience with animal model testing," Professor Walker said.

'If it works, it could be a game-changer'

The partnership aims for Queensland scientists to design an experimental mRNA vaccine against a particular target, which would then be manufactured by Moderna overseas, before testing in animal models back at UQ.

"Moderna has given us access to a long list of potential targets," Professor Walker said.

"A lot of those are pathogens that are a particular problem in developing countries. We're looking for unmet clinical need.

"There's no guarantee that an mRNA approach will work but the mRNA approach is new and so it's really worth trying to develop a vaccine using that technology because if it works, then it could be a game-changer."

Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine took about 12 months to develop and gain approval for emergency use in the United States.

Professor Walker said the goal in future would be to cut that time to as little as 100 days.

The Queensland scientists hope to explore the use of mRNA technology for the development of vaccines against pathogens from different virus families, as well as bacteria and parasites.

"No-one's yet demonstrated a mRNA vaccine is effective for bacterial infections or parasitic infections," Professor Walker said.

"We're excited to start work."

Potential to save thousands of lives

UQ Professor Paul Young says there are atleast10 disease research projects underway that could immediately benefit from the Moderna partnership. (Supplied)

Professor Walker worked together with Paul Young to broker the partnership with Moderna.

Professor Young led the team behind UQ's COVID-19 "molecular clamp" vaccine candidate, which was scrapped after it generated false positive HIV test results.

He described the university's partnership with Moderna as a "coup" that would potentially save thousands of lives in developing countries.

"It is also recognition that UQ is a centre of excellence in vaccine research and discovery," Professor Young said.

He said there were at least 10 disease research projects underway at UQ that could benefit immediately from the Moderna partnership.

How deadly is COVID-19? And how does it compare to other diseases?
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