Alumnus Attarwala Leads Moderna Team in Development of COVID-19 Vaccine Trials
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every facet of life. Sporting events and concerts were cancelled. Work and school were conducted online. People donned masks wherever they went, hoping modern medicine could come up with a vaccine that would keep everyone healthy and get back to a normal life that includes seeing and hugging relatives.
Companies all over the world raced to tackle SARS-CoV-2, a virus that slashed restaurant and retail store capacities and made “social distancing” a part of everyday vocabulary. While the public was waiting for a vaccine, Northeastern alumni were there doing their part in researching, developing, and administering the long-anticipated vaccine.
Husain Attarwala earned his MS (’11) and PhD (’16) in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Northeastern. He is currently the director of clinical pharmacology and pharmacometrics at Moderna. He explained the work involved when it comes to pharmacology in an interview with Northeastern’s Huntington News earlier this year.
“What we are trying to do here is not one single discipline. It’s not mathematics. It is not biology. It is not just pharmacology, but it is (the) integration of different disciplines,” Attarwala told the Huntington News.
Attarwala further explained the work done in an interview facilitated by Dr. Mansoor Amiji and posted on Northeastern Alumni’s YouTube channel.
“We encapsulate mRNA within a particle and administer it to the body,” Attarwala said in the video. “The type of diseases or conditions we can treat is very wide because proteins are involved in almost every process in the body, and most of the diseases have something that is upregulated or downregulated that we can correct by correcting the amounts or levels or introducing a new protein.”
Attarwala spoke further about the challenges those at Moderna faced when trying to develop the vaccine.
“During clinical development, we need to decide what dose. We need to do modeling to predict, so when we begin a clinical trial, we have no idea where to start.”
Moderna worked with tens of thousands of patients and found an optimal dose through different phases.
“We accelerated the growth development,” Attarwala explained. “What needs to be done? We use the data available.”
Attarwala also cited Moderna’s wide-ranging programs, access to technology and finances to allow the company to run the necessary clinical studies.
“With academia, you learn all of this, but then where do you go to apply it?” Attarwala explained to the Huntington News. “So that is where it comes to industry.”
Attarwala leads the pharmacometrics division at Moderna, where his team determined what the optimal dose of Moderna’s vaccine would be.
“If you look at the clinical trials, success rates, or failure rates,” Attarwala explained, “the most determining factor is whether the dose was too little or too high, then we miss the balance of safety and efficacy which is extremely important when we want a therapeutic to be in the therapeutic index for the large population that the drug is going to be administered.”
Attarwala’s team looked at mathematical models starting from quantitative pharmacology models from translative to population PK models, population PK/PD models, safety evaluation and safety probabilistic models. The team then took the aggregate information across drug development and used it to decide next steps.
As for the vaccines, there is immunostimulatory immunodynamic models (tools used to predict most immunovaccine doses and accelerate vaccine development). These models are, “put into play,” with the safety models.
Working to end the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has taught Attarwala and his team at Moderna what is truly possible when developing new drugs and vaccines. The pace of a drug’s development can be accelerated more than originally thought possible.
“I hope the entire science of how you can develop drugs can be faster after this pandemic,” said Attarwala, who also lauded the faster review process of regulatory agencies. The technology’s evolution has also resulted in a faster process of, “bringing sequences, mRNA algorithms, all of those. So, all companies coming together in a way to accelerate drug development and mRNA technology was really a new technology.”
Attarwala also spoke of the advances that made it possible to get a vaccine to the public so fast. Something that has puzzled those outside of the field.
“The innovation is fast. We have narrow timelines. The patient and disease are important. We think of the person. For that person, that is his entire life. You’re working on something the whole world needs. It’s incredible to be able to be a part of this.”
Attarwala heard from many people who were glad to have the results of work done by people like him. He recently had work done on his home. People who were there to do the work learned of his efforts, said they were, “privileged to be working with someone who did this.” Attarwala has also received letters from teachers and students.
“I go to the hardware store,” Attarwala explained. “There’s a little bit of conversation. ‘How did you develop this so fast?’ It’s possible because of scientific acceleration. You could send emails or ‘Facetime’. If this pandemic happened 10, 20 years ago, the technology wasn’t there. We tested it. There were no shortcuts.”
Attarwala also lauded the programs at Northeastern that prepare students for their careers. He said the programs, “could serve as role models for other universities to follow,” due to their unparalleled programs that partner industry together with academia. It’s a symbiotic partnership that gives students real world experience and industry a talent pool to draw from.