UBC Drug Dealer


Few research groups ever manage to have one of their drug discoveries make it out of the lab and ultimately through the long and arduous regulatory approval process. In August 2012, the UBC NanoMedicines Research Group led by Dr. Pieter Cullis celebrated its third such achievement, when Talon Therapeutics (since acquired by Spectrum Pharmaceuticals) received approval for Marqibo® for the treatment of a rare type of leukemia among adults.

For more than 30 years, Dr. Cullis’s lab, formerly known as the Liposomal Research Group, has focused on the encapsulation of conventional or genetic drugs in what are known as liposomal nanoparticles. These tiny bubbles can preferentially deliver a payload of small molecule drugs or larger biomolecules into cells in the body affected by diseases, such as inflammation or solid tumours that cause the blood vessels in these areas to become more permeable. This targeted delivery mechanism, which can result in up to 50 times more drug arriving at the diseased site, can dramatically enhance the effectiveness of drugs used for cancer chemotherapy and other disorders.

In 1995, ABELCET became the first drug involving the group to reach the market, when Enzon received regulatory approval to use this formulation of Amphotericin B to treat fungal infections in Europe and the US. Five years later, Cepahlon Inc. received approval for the use of Myocet, a liposomal delivery of Doxorubicin, for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer in Europe and Canada, becoming the group’s second success.

The development and ultimate approval of Marqibo was not without its challenges, and was a process that took more than 20 years. Originally developed in the early 1990s in Dr. Cullis’s UBC laboratory and by UBC spin-off company Inex Pharmaceuticals, liposomal vincristine was brought to the FDA for approval in in 2004 for treatment of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at second or greater relapse. It was not approved by the FDA at that time, and the company then licensed it to Talon Therapeutics of San Francisco in 2006. Talon continued development for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and when approval was finally granted in 2012, it was the first approval of a liposomal product since 2000.

The UILO has worked with Dr. Cullis to license his discoveries and establish spin-off companies.