UBC researchers win national honour for natural, health sciences research

Two UBC researchers were awarded the Killam Prize, a national honour, on March 15.

Professor in biochemistry and molecular biology Dr. Pieter Cullis and professor in zoology Dr. Sarah Otto were each awarded the prize for their research contributions in the fields of health and natural sciences, respectively. The Killam Prize is a prestigious national award that aims to recognize the research excellence of Canadian scholars through a $100,000 prize.

The Ubyssey sat down with the honourees to discuss the research milestones behind their wins.

From COVID-19 vaccines to entrepreneurship

After 40 years in his field, it is difficult to distill Cullis’s research contributions to a singular achievement. However, the pandemic saw an important application of his pioneering work on lipid nanoparticles — the development of the BioNTech/Pfizer COVID-19 mRNA vaccine.

mRNA vaccines work by introducing RNA that codes for the spike protein belonging to the novel coronavirus, allowing the body to produce antibodies for immunity. This process requires a delivery system like the lipid nanoparticle, a fatty ‘package’ that can be loaded with nucleic acids, like RNA, under specific conditions.

Seeing a technology that he helped develop be critical to the vaccine effort was “unbelievable,” said Cullis. He spoke fondly of a pivotal moment where data revealed the vaccine’s 95 per cent protection rate and the subsequent billions of doses that have been distributed globally.

“It’s just enormously gratifying to have something like that happen and it’s really been the work of a large team that we’ve kept together over the years,” he said. “It’s just been an amazing ride.”

Beyond his UBC research, Cullis also has an affinity for entrepreneurship: He co-founded 11 biotechnology companies. These ventures aim to translate academic discoveries into products that can help people, while also creating jobs. According to Cullis, his companies employ around 500 people in the Vancouver area — he estimates over half of which are UBC graduates.

Cullis has been recognized internationally, but he said it was particularly meaningful to be given a Canadian award. In light of this win, he looks forward to using this momentum to pave the way for future research. He hopes to further apply his lipid nanoparticle technology for new drugs. In theory, this tiny delivery system could be applied to treat a host of diseases, including cancer.

“It’s revolutionizing medicine,” he said.

Solving the sex paradox

Otto has similarly been a leader in her field for decades, contributing to research on the evolution of the novel coronavirus and answering fundamental questions in the field of evolutionary biology.

One of Otto’s many contributions lies in their resolution of a classic evolutionary problem called the paradox of sex. For decades, scientists have puzzled as to why sexual reproduction is so common among living organisms, as unlike asexual reproduction, it is a costly process that relies on genes from two organisms combining to create offspring, combinations that might not be functional. Existing mathematical models suggested that sexual reproduction should not be so common.

This was until Otto identified a key problem in prevailing assumptions — while old models assumed an infinitely large population, this isn’t practically the case. Her work, which incorporates realistic population sizes, finds that sexual reproduction substantially increases the efficiency of selection. This is now a leading theory for the evolution of sexual reproduction, changing the game of evolutionary biology.

Otto is also a key researcher in the BC COVID-19 Modeling Group and an expert on the evolution of the novel coronavirus. Their expertise has been instrumental in informing the public and policy-makers on key variants in the population and supporting efforts to properly communicate the science of evolution as well.

When asked about the significance of this win, Otto said that they are honoured to see evolutionary biology be recognized at this level.

“For me, it’s the significance of having evolution really elevated to this central important role in society today,,” they said. For the field to be recognized by this award and for her to be chosen as a representative, is deeply gratifying — especially as a woman in STEM.

“There aren’t that many women on the [Killam Prize] list,” she said. “I think even having a woman as the face of excellence in science and candidates is a great thing.”

Moving forward, Otto is excited to mentor their students in the many projects in their lab. For Otto, this win goes beyond their contributions and stands as a testament to what a dedicated team of bright scientists can accomplish together.

“It’s wonderful to get this award but it really reflects more on this awesome community that I get to work in,” they said. “I credit my students and my colleagues for creating this intellectually vibrant environment in which creativity is supported and breaking the bounds of science [is] encouraged.”

“This one is an award for the team.”