B.C. scientist instrumental in development of COVID-19 vaccine honoured by alma mater

Pieter Cullis is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of British Columbia. He developed essential delivery technology for the most successful COVID-19 vaccines. (Paul Joseph/UBC - image credit)
Pieter Cullis is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of British Columbia. He developed essential delivery technology for the most successful COVID-19 vaccines. (Paul Joseph/UBC - image credit)

One of the scientists behind the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine is being honoured by the University of B.C., his employer and alma mater, with an Alumni Award of Distinction.

Pieter Cullis, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the university, is considered an international leader in developing drug delivery systems to treat certain cancers, fungal infections and infectious diseases — including COVID-19.

"It's pretty amazing," he told On The Coast host Gloria Macarenko. "It's been quite a story."

Cullis has been working on lipid nanoparticles, which deliver vaccines into cells, for more than 40 years.

He had been working with BioNTech, and in turn with Pfizer, to develop a flu vaccine.

"When the pandemic hit, all efforts moved to developing a COVID-19 vaccine," he said.

"That really brought this whole technology to the fore."

Lipid nanoparticles encase messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) and protect it from degradation, enabling the mRNA to be released inside a cell. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, mRNA prompts the creation of coronavirus proteins that trigger an immune response within the body.

Cullis acknowledges there is a segment of the population that doesn't believe in the vaccine — whether they don't think it works, or whether they think there's something more sinister to it.

"It's very difficult to know how to address that," he said. "The data is just enormously convincing and both in terms of hospitalizations and deaths amongst people that are vaccinated against those that aren't."

He said the Pfizer-BioNTech clinical trial done in 2020 involved 44,000 people, which Cullis said is a "very large number."

"Obviously we have to do our best to to express things as convincingly as we can, but in the end, of course, it's really an individual's decision," he said.

Since his science was used to create the vaccine, Cullis has received several awards, including an appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2021.

Cullis attended UBC, Utrecht University in the Netherlands and Oxford University in England for degrees in physics and biochemistry in the 1960s and 1970s, according to his LinkedIn profile.

The Alumni UBC Achievement Awards, sponsored by CBC and this year hosted by CBC's Lien Yeung, honour alumni who have endeavoured to make the world a better place.