Pieter Cullis

Biochemist’s work in lipid nanoparticles has the world knocking at the door

Over the course of his career, Pieter Cullis has received a number of international awards for his pioneering work that contributed to the highly effective COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, but his most recent, the 2022 Gairdner International Award, holds special meaning.

“It’s a Canadian award,” says the University of British Columbia biochemist and physicist. “So from that point of view, it feels really good because it’s recognition in your own country.”

Dr. Cullis shares the Gairdner International Award with Dr. Katalin Karikó, senior vice president of RNA Protein Replacement Therapies at BioNTech SE and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Drew Weissman, director of the Penn Institute for RNA Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania. The three developed nucleoside-modified mRNA and lipid nanoparticle (LNP) drug delivery – the foundational technologies for the mRNA vaccines.

Drs. Karikó and Weissman discovered how to engineer mRNA, while Dr. Cullis developed the packaging system to effectively introduce the mRNA into the body.

For delivery of mRNA, the LNPs are designed to form a protective bubble and enable delivery to the interior of target cells.

Dr. Cullis has worked in lipid chemistry and the formation of LNPs over the past 40 years. New developments in his research aligned perfectly with the need for a COVID-19 vaccine, something he describes as “being in the right place at the right time.”

His work with LNPs also holds promise for cancer treatments, with the potential to develop highly personalized, relatively non-toxic kinds of treatments.

Currently, Dr. Cullis divides his time between UBC and pursuing commercial applications for LNPs and mRNA technology. Through Vancouver-based Acuitas, a start-up he co-founded in 2009, and NanoVation Therapeutics, a start-up he co-founded in 2019, Dr. Cullis and colleagues partner with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, academic institutions and thought leaders from around the world to advance and commercialize mRNA therapeutics for a wide variety of diseases.

“Opportunities are coming out of it now because we have developed a well validated process to introduce nucleic-acid-based drugs into target cells in vivo,” he says of the mRNA and LNP technologies. “The world is really coming to us to develop the many new therapeutics this makes possible because we have this technology in place.”

Learn more about the Canada Gairdner International Award

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