A British Columbia biochemist whose work played a key role in the development of COVID-19 vaccines has been honoured with one of Canada’s most prestigious scientific awards.
Biochemist Pieter Cullis, former director of UBC’s Life Sciences Institute, was named a winner of the 2022 Canada Gairdner International Award on Tuesday.
He was honoured alongside Katalin Karikó, senior vice-president of RNA Protein Replacement Therapies at BioNTech SE and Drew Weissman, director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation, for their work developing the vaccine’s mRNA engineering.
“It’s astonishing, really,” Cullis told Global BC Morning on Friday.
“This really reflects the work of hundreds of people. I had the privilege of leading some pretty successful groups, but this is really a group effort and a very collaborative endeavour.”
Technology developed over decades by Cullis and his colleagues was used in the Pfizer-BioNTech messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine.
Scientists have been working with mRNA, which can direct cells in the human body to produce proteins for decades, but one of the key challenges in its use in medicine was how to deliver it safely into cells.
That’s where Cullis’ work was important. Cullis and UBC colleagues pioneered the development of lipid nanoparticles, tiny droplets of fat that work to create a “bubble” around mRNA and allow it to travel to cells in the body.
“You need a delivery system both to protect it from the external environment and also to carry it across the cell membrane. Without a delivery system, the mRNA would not get into the cell, and therefore not make the protein it codes for,” Cullis explained.
Unlike traditional vaccines, which involve the use of an inert form of a virus, messenger RNA vaccines work by teaching human cells how to create a protein that triggers an immune response.
In the case of COVID-19, they direct he cells to produce proteins that mimics the spike protein that allows the SARS-SoV-2 virus to interact engage with our cells.
Messenger RNA research itself has been ongoing since the 1980s.
Cullis and B.C. researchers have been working on lipid nanoparticle technology for decades, and in 2009 he and colleagues Thomas Madden and Michael Hope launched a private company, Acuitas Therapeutics, which later partnered with Pfizer-BioNTech to develop their mRNA vaccine.
Those decades of work, Cullis said, belies the popular misconception that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines were developed “overnight.”
“This is work that has been going on in my laboratory and others for over 25 years now,” Cullis said.
“It certainly is a different form of vaccine, but it’s not one you can say has been developed overnight. This has been a gradual improvement in technology so that we can actually use nucleic acid polymers as therapeutics.”
Madden, president and CEO of Acuitas, described work to actually produce the vaccine as a sprint that involved sending scores of different formulations to BioNTech for pre-clinical work.
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“We were doing that at at time where we still needed to ensure the safety of people at Acuitas who were doing this work — most other businesses were locked down,” he said.
“People were working seven days a week, 24-hours a day ins some cases, in order to be able to quickly turn around all of these different vaccine candidates so that the best ones could move into phase one clinical trials.”
Cullis said he believes the technology used in the vaccine has massive potential, and could one day be used to treat other diseases including cancer.
It’s a potential the Gairdner Foundation also saw, noting the honorees “pivotal discoveries also have the potential to revolutionize the future delivery of effective and safe vaccines, therapeutics and gene therapies.”
UBC president Santa J. Ono praised the work of Cullis and his team as crucial to the vaccine’s development.
“The work of Dr. Cullis and his esteemed colleagues enabled the rapid availability of highly effective and safe COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, which has been instrumental in protecting individuals during the pandemic,” Ono said in a statement.
“We are extremely proud of Dr. Cullis’ enormous contributions to biomedical and global health research and congratulate him on this well-deserved honour.”
The Gairdner Foundation was established in 1957, and since then it has handed out more than 400 awards in a variety of health categories to recipients from 40 countries.
Winning it is often viewed as a precursor to being awarded a Nobel Prize: to date, 96 Gairdner winners have gone on to win a Nobel Prize.