Dr. Pieter Cullis is a recipient of the 2021 Prince Mahidol Award in recognition of his pioneering work on lipid nanoparticles (LNP), which has been critical to the development of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines and other life-saving medicines.
Dr. Cullis, a professor in the faculty of medicine’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology, is one of three researchers receiving the award for outstanding contributions to medicine and human health. The award is given annually by the Prince Mahidol Award Foundation, which was founded by the Thai Royal Family in 1992.
“I want to thank the Prince Mahidol Award Foundation for this incredible honour,” says Dr. Cullis. “I never imagined our discoveries would help bring an end to a global pandemic. Even more exciting is the fact that the COVID-19 vaccines are just the tip of the iceberg. Almost every disease, from cancer to Alzheimer’s, could be tackled by mRNA technology enabled by lipid nanoparticles.”
The award celebrates decades of work by Dr. Cullis developing LNP drug delivery systems, which have been used for various applications, such as delivering anticancer drugs to cancer tissues. In an important breakthrough, Dr. Cullis and UBC colleagues developed an innovative type of LNP containing ionizable cationic lipids. These LNP are not only able to efficiently encapsulate large molecules, such as mRNA, but are also able to deliver these nucleic acid-based drugs into the cytoplasm of target cells.
The technique pioneered by Dr. Cullis has been successfully employed to develop the LNP delivery system for mRNA vaccines, including those being used in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The achievement has also opened up possibilities for various applications of nucleic acid technology for the prevention and treatment of many diseases in the future.
Dr. Cullis has also been extensively involved in founding companies to commercialize technologies developed in his lab, including the Vancouver, BC-based biotech company Acuitas Pharmaceuticals. This company was granted a 2021 Global Impact Award by Life Sciences British Columbia in recognition of its work with Pfizer and BioNTech in developing their highly effective mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine.
The 2021 Prince Mahidol Awards were announced on November 15, 2021 at the Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. Other recipients of this year’s award include Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman, professors at the University of Pennsylvania who have been working side-by-side in developing mRNA technology and its applications in medicine.
In the past 29 years, the Prince Mahidol Award has been conferred to 87 individuals and groups who have demonstrated outstanding and exemplary contributions to the advancement of the world’s medical and public health services. The 2021 awardees were selected out of a pool of 86 nominations from 35 countries.
A version of this story originally appeared on Prince Mahidol Award Foundation website.