GVN Center and Member Spotlight

February 4, 2022 – GVN SPOTLIGHT ON:

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
Assistant Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Immunology and Infectious Diseases

Dr. Corbett’s research work on the mRNA 1273 vaccine

Dr. Corbett’s research on coronaviruses was essential to the development of Moderna’s “SpikeVax” COVID-19 vaccine. SpikeVax, formally known as “mRNA-1273”, is a lipid nanoparticle-encapsulated, nucleoside-modified messenger RNA (mRNA)-based vaccine that encodes the SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) glycoprotein stabilized in its prefusion conformation. The S glycoprotein mediates host cell attachment and is required for viral entry, making it the primary vaccine target for many candidate SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. Corbett’s work allowed for the unprecedented rapid development of a candidate vaccine which led to a first-in-human Phase 1 clinical trial in healthy adults in only 66 days following the viral sequence release. Dr. Corbett published a first author manuscript entitled “SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine design enabled by prototype pathogen preparedness” in Nature, 2020, describing her preclinical work conducted in mice. These studies informed basic immunogenicity, efficacy, and safety of the vaccine.

Following this study, Dr. Corbett produced further evidence of this vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing viral replication in both upper and lower airways in nonhuman primates in a first author publication in New England Journal of Medicine, 2020, entitled “Evaluation of the mRNA-1273 Vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 in Nonhuman Primates.” These results provided data on mRNA-1273’s immunogenicity, complementing the immunogenicity and safety data established by the earlier Phase 1 clinical study involving humans. The preliminary results of the Phase 1 clinical trial showed that the mRNA-1273 vaccine induced anti-SARS-CoV-2 immune responses in all participants with no trial-limiting safety concerns, supporting further development of this vaccine.

Based on the importance of this work, Dr. Corbett was a co-author on the New England Journal of Medicine, 2020, publication entitled “An mRNA Vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 — Preliminary Report.”  Since then, SpikeVax has been authorized for adult use in adults in multiple countries and is one of many vaccines being used globally to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Corbett’s research continues to explore the durabily SpikeVax-induced immune responses (Nature Immunology & Science, 2021) and the utility of the vaccine against emerging variants (Science, Nature Immunology, Cell, 2021).

Dr. Corbett’s virology research community outreach endeavors

Dr. Corbett has long been invested in public outreach activities that intertwine with her scientific endeavors. Starting in 2008, when she was a Meyerhoff scholar that the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, Dr. Corbett served as Rising Scholars Tutors Program coordinator; in this role, she designed after-school curricula for high school students with the aim of teaching science beyond the classroom and serving as a liaison for college and internship applications. Her work did not stop there —  during her matriculation as a Microbiology and Immunology PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she participated as an advocate for science funding on Capitol Hill with the Coalition for Life Sciences, an advocate for graduate education at North Carolina State Advocacy Day, and sat on career panels for local high school students.

Today, she leads COVID-19 vaccine development efforts. Understanding the importance of engaging the community regarding the vaccine and science in general, as recently written in Nature, “Immunologist Dr. Corbett Corbett helped to design the Moderna vaccine. Now she volunteers her time talking about vaccine science with people of colour.” Although her outreach efforts extend beyond the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, to date, she has participated in over 70 volunteer activities with the aim of speaking to lay audiences about COVID-19 vaccines. These activities, ranging from panels organized by local organizations to full-day community events, taken together show how Dr. Corbett has invested much of her time towards science outreach and public science education over the past 14 years.

Professional Summary

Dr. Corbett uses her viral immunology expertise to propel novel vaccine development for pandemic preparedness, including mRNA-1273, a leading vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. The vaccine concept incorporated in mRNA-1273 was designed by Dr. Corbett’s NIH team from viral sequence and rapidly deployed to industry partner, Moderna, Inc., for Phase 1 clinical trial, which unprecedently began only 66 days from viral sequence release. mRNA-1273 was shown to be 94.1% effective in Phase 3 trial and is authorized for use in multiple countries. Alongside mRNA-1273, Dr. Corbett boasts a patent portfolio which also includes universal coronavirus and influenza vaccine concepts and novel therapeutic antibodies. In all, she has over 15 years of experience studying dengue virus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza virus, and coronaviruses, garnering several prestigious awards, such as the Benjamin Franklin Next Gen Award and the Salzman Memorial Award in Virology. Combining her research goals with her knack for mentorship, Dr. Corbett invests much of her time in underserved communities as an advocator of STEM education and vaccine awareness.

Overview of Harvard School of Public Health, Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases (IID)

Formed in 1997 when the Departments of Cancer Biology, Molecular and Cellular Toxicology, and Tropical Public Health were merged. The department focuses on the biological, immunological, epidemiological, and ecological aspects of viral, bacterial, and protozoan diseases of animals and humans, including the vectors that transmit infectious agents. Research in the department’s 14 laboratories is primarily focused on diseases of developing countries. Laboratory-based research may be supplemented by field-based studies of epidemiological and ecological aspects of infectious disease transmission and control.

Infectious and immune-mediated diseases currently under study include HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Chagas, Malaria, Pneumonia, Enteric Diseases, Inflammatory Bowel, and Autoimmune diseases. Further immunologic studies focus on genetic regulation of the immune response, the interplay between the innate immune system and intestinal microbial communities, the function and regulation of T-cell-derived cytokines and cytokines involved in the regulation of inflammation.

Research in the department emphasizes basic pathogenic mechanisms that may lead to better diagnostic tools, the development of vaccines and other interventions for prevention and control of infection and disease, and the identification of new targets for antiviral and antiparasitic drugs.

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