UBC biochemist wins Gairdner Award for role in COVID-19 vaccines

TORONTO — When he established his lab at the University of British Columbia in the 1980s, Pieter Cullis says he never could have fathomed that his “curiosity-based” research would eventually play a critical role in the development of vaccines that have benefited hundreds of millions of people across the globe.

The Vancouver biochemistry professor was named among the winners of the prestigious Canada Gairdner Awards for his contributions to the development of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.

Cullis said the accolade serves as a reminder that scientific inquiry starts with a question, and even “basic” research can lead to world-changing breakthroughs.

“We just find it kind of unbelievable,” Cullis said in an interview ahead of Tuesday’s Gairdner Awards announcement. “You’re working away, you’re doing what you do, and then who could prophesize that we’d have this kind of an impact.”

Cullis and his colleagues at University of Pennsylvania, Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, were recognized with the Gairdner International Award for developing the foundational technology behind mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, such as those manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

Karikó and Weissman are credited with discovering how to engineer messenger RNA to teach our cells to make a protein that trains the body’s immune system to identify and fight the COVID-19 virus.

The question became how to get the mRNA into our cells without degradation. It was a problem that Cullis, co-founder of Vancouver-based biotech company Acuitas Therapeutics, had been looking into since the early days of his research on the chemical composition of cell membranes.

His lab laid the groundwork for the vaccine’s drug-delivery system, which uses tiny fat bubbles — known as lipid nanoparticles — to protect and transport mRNA into our cells.

“It’s been quite remarkable to suddenly move from a situation where we’re dealing with what was a relatively unknown therapeutic approach, to have something that is now going into billions of arms worldwide,” Cullis said.

Cullis said that COVID-19 vaccines represent the “tip of the iceberg” of the technology’s potential applications. He sees lipid nanoparticles as a promising new tool that could usher in a wave of “individualized therapies” that don’t only treat the symptoms of a disease, but target the underlying causes.

In their citation, the Gairdner jury said the discoveries that undergird mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “have the potential to revolutionize the future delivery of effective and safe vaccines, therapeutics and gene therapies.”

Cullis said the Gairdner recognition underscores the importance of supporting scientific innovation in Canada, noting that many of our brightest minds move to the U.S. in pursuit of professional opportunities.

“This is something we just have to address, that we find ways of creating industries so we keep our people in Canada,” he said. “They don’t go south because they want to leave Canada. They go south because that’s where the jobs are.”

Canadians took four of this year’s seven Gairdner Awards, which recognize some of the world’s most significant scientific discoveries impacting human health.

The other Gairdner International Award laureates were John Dick, a senior scientist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, for his discovery of leukemic stem cells in an acute myeloid leukemia patient, and Harvard University’s Stuart Orkin for his breakthrough discoveries on red blood cells that have led to new treatments for disorders such as sickle cell disease.

Zulfiqar Bhutta, a senior scientist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, took the Gairdner Global Health Award for developing evidence-based strategies to support child and maternal health in marginalized populations.

The Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, given to a Canadian researcher who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in medical science, went to McMaster University’s Deborah Cook for her multi-disciplinary research on critical care medicine.

The Gairdner Awards, which include $100,000 for each recipient, are nicknamed the “baby Nobels” because 96 Gairdner winners have gone on to receive Nobel Prizes, according to organizers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 5, 2022.

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