IRVINE, Calif. — Inside a little vial on Dr. Phil Felgner's desk lies the key to what has made the COVID-19 vaccine a reality. It's called Lipofectin.

"There's probably a million vials that are sold every year to scientists all over the world," Felgner said.

In the late '80s and early '90s, Felgner was part of a team of scientists that developed a way to use this solution to deliver genetic material into cells and animals.  

What You Need To Know

  • Dr. Phil Felgner pioneered a way to inject gene sequences into cells and achieve an immune response

  • That gene research helped lay the groundwork for the COVID-19 vaccines

  • Felgner is one of seven scientists around the world being honored with Spain's prestigious Princess of Asturias Award related to COVID vaccine research

  • He came to UCI in 2002 and founded the university's Vaccine R&D Center

"People thought about these lipid nanoparticles, and they thought maybe we can make a synthetic virus particle that way because viruses are good at delivering nucleic acid to cells," Felgner said.

He and his colleagues injected those nanoparticles with RNA and DNA into mice, and immediately, the first experiment worked, he said.

"You could inject a gene sequence, and your immune system would mount an immune response against the protein that was encoded on that gene," he said. "Everything else emerged from this finding."

That pioneering research helps make the COVID-19 vaccine possible. The vaccine basically works by injecting messenger RNA into cells, creating an immune response, so the body can arm itself with the right antibodies to fight the coronavirus.

But Felgner and his colleagues were ahead of their time, and the technology had to catch up before it could be widely applied to humans. 

"I would say we did imagine it and probably a little frustrated we couldn't pull it off," he said.

That is until recently. He is one of seven scientists around the globe, being honored with Spain's prestigious Princess of Asturias Award for scientific research related to designing the COVID-19 vaccine.

"It actually feels like I've taken a great big circle that's taken 35 years to come around to the start of this again," Felgner said. 

He currently leads UCI's Vaccine R&D Center, where his team tests various antigens to see how strong immune responses are in cells. To date, the lab has cloned 70,000 genes derived from roughly 45 infections microorganisms.

"We've printed them on these chips, and we've probed tens of thousands of serum samples from all the over the world, people who have had all these different infections," Felgner explained.  

Since the COVID-19 outbreak started, his lab has tested more than 10,000 blood samples in Orange County alone related to the coronavirus.

"Those samples came from people who were naturally exposed to the virus and infected and others who were vaccinated," Felgner said.

He said he was shocked to see how much the number of antibodies skyrocketed in vaccinated people compared to those who were naturally infected with COVID-19.

He couldn't be prouder to have pioneered research decades ago that is now fueling the fight against COVID-19.

"It's been a real thrill."