Bowen Li, assistant professor at U of T’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, has received a prestigious Gairdner Early Career Investigator Award recognizing his research to develop new platforms to deliver mRNA vaccines and improve their effectiveness.
“The biggest barrier to using mRNA is how to safely and effectively deliver it to the site you want it to go to. This is an unmet need,” says Li. “Right now, we can use lipid nanoparticles to deliver mRNA through intramuscular injection, and you can induce an immune response to protect against infection. But we want to find wider applications for mRNA.”
Lipid nanoparticles, a mix of different fat molecules, are an essential part of the mRNA vaccine: they protect the mRNA from being degraded or cleared by the body and help it enter cells. Many possible combinations of lipid nanoparticles could be used to deliver mRNA vaccines, but current formulations only allow for intramuscular delivery – which is why COVID-19 vaccines are administered in the upper arm.
This intramuscular delivery generates immunity throughout the body (systemic immunity), but it is inefficient at inducing immunity in the respiratory tract (mucosal immunity), where the coronavirus first lands in the case of COVID-19. If the vaccine could be delivered directly to the relevant tissue – in the case of COVID-19, the nose and lung – the body could potentially generate greater immunity at the mucosal linings of the airways and better prevent infection and transmission of the virus.
Li’s lab uses new robotic technology to quickly synthesize thousands of lipid nanoparticle formulations in a day, from which they can test the best candidates to deliver mRNA to the target tissue. In earlier research, Li and his team successfully designed a lipid nanoparticle capable of boosting immunity when delivered intramuscularly and directly to the nose.
“The Gairdner Early Career Investigator Award puts promising Canadian researchers on stage and in conversation with the leading minds in their field. Winners share their own work on an international platform, build new scientific connections and represent the exceptional work being done at all levels of the Canadian research ecosystem,” says Janet Rossant, president and scientific director of the Gairdner Foundation. “Along with the new Canada Gairdner Momentum Award for mid-career researchers, Gairdner is proud to be building bridges between the exceptional leaders of today and tomorrow.”
Funding from J.P. Bickell Foundation will support research to develop mucosal RNA vaccines
Li also recently received a highly competitive Medical Research Grant from the J.P. Bickell Foundation to explore and develop a new platform to deliver the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine directly to the respiratory tract.
With his new award, Li aims to develop mucosal mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 and demonstrate their effectiveness in boosting anti-viral immunity, specifically in the mucus of the respiratory system. He will also investigate the timing of vaccination schedules and whether a delayed booster could improve immunity.
“The support from J.P. Bickell Foundation and the Gairdner Foundation will allow our research program to explore high-risk, high-reward RNA vaccine platforms and enable our lab to train more high-quality personnel in this cutting-edge field of RNA medicine, who can support Canada's economy in the future.”
Li hopes the project will result in a novel mucosal mRNA vaccine that can induce a greater immune response and reduce infection and transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. This delivery platform could be used for boosters against new COVID-19 variants or adapted for new vaccines for other viruses, bacteria, and even cancers.
“I hope our efforts encourage the industrial development of RNA vaccines in Canada and assist Canadians in responding better to future pandemics and health emergencies,” says Li. “The support from J.P. Bickell Foundation and the Gairdner Foundation will allow our research program to explore high-risk, high-reward RNA vaccine platforms and enable our lab to train more high-quality personnel in this cutting-edge field of RNA medicine, who can support Canada's economy in the future.”
“Congratulations to Bowen on being recognized as a Gairdner Early Career Investigator and receiving the J.P. Bickell Foundation Medical Research Award,” says Dr. Micheline Piquette-Miller, associate dean, research at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. “His work is important and innovative in meeting a number of today’s global health challenges in an emerging area of study.”
Gairdner presentations will be live-streamed
Li and the four other young investigators selected by the Gairdner Foundation will present their research at the annual Canada Gairdner Laureate Symposium on Thursday, October 27, and attend the Gairdner Awards Gala and a networking session with Gairdner laureates.
The public is invited to watch a live stream of the presentations. More information about the event is available on the Gairdner Foundation website.
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