Preparing for future health crises

March 17, 2022
News

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of being prepared to deal with health crises, and the consequences to economies and society if caught unprepared. Participants at Accelerate had a chance to hear from award-winning Dr. Pieter Cullis, physicist and biochemist from The University of British Columbia, on how Canada can be ready for future health challenges.

The road to mRNA

Dr.  Cullis won major international awards for his contributions to the development of mRNA vaccines, which have saved lives around the world during the pandemic. The Canadian researcher’s contributions to mRNA technology is the result of 40 years of exploratory research and began with a desire to answer a simple question: Why do membranes contain lipids and what are their roles?

This curiosity led to the discovery of a new way to deliver cancer drugs through lipid nanoparticles, which Dr. Cullis pursued with great success through pharmaceutical companies he founded. Eventually, further research revealed that particles—such as RNA and mRNA—could also be delivered through lipid nanoparticles. In partnership with an immunologist from the University of Pennsylvania, the technology was adapted for vaccines and laid the groundwork for the mRNA vaccines we have today. None of this would have been possible without Dr. Cullis’ curiosity and ability to explore areas of interest through fundamental research.

Answering life’s big questions

The potential to make discoveries and to answer some of life’s biggest questions is one of the things that excites Dr. Cullis most about research.

“One of the things that the academic and the research endeavour allows you to do is to… get to grips with things that people just don’t know the answers to. And you have the tools to get to maybe some level of understanding. That’s delightful.” – Dr. Cullis

Dr. Cullis explained it’s not always a linear path to discovery either; sometimes you have to learn what doesn’t work to discover what does.

Collaboration among scientists

The overwhelming success of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines took the scientific community somewhat by surprise.

“The whole field was astonished [to see a] 95% potency for a vaccine, that’s unheard of.” – Dr. Cullis

One key to their success was scientists’ willingness and ability to work together, across fields of expertise and borders. This collaboration has become even easier thanks to the introduction of new digital technologies.

 

The future potential of mRNA and research

Technology like mRNA vaccines has the potential to revolutionize medicine and produce more effective, personalized treatments for diseases. The production of mRNA treatments is also relatively quick compared to other drugs which can take a decade or longer.

“We can design the lipid nanoparticle with the mRNA in it in a matter of a day or two. We can make the mRNA in a month or so, formulate it in a day. So, within a couple of months, you have a highly targeted and very personalized therapy for that individual.” – Dr. Cullis

The technology could be adapted to treat diseases such as cancer, HIV, malaria and more, and has the potential to save millions of lives worldwide.

To make sure we get there, it’s essential we continue to invest in research and in creating jobs for our researchers here in Canada.

“I think we should have a policy where we double [what we spend on research in Canada]. There are numerous studies that will show the benefits of doing that and encouraging [us to] create companies that stay in Canada, will bring back that money manyfold.” – Dr. Cullis

Tagged:  Research and innovation

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Lisa Wallace
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Universities Canada
communications@univcan.ca

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