[과찬의말씀] Langer’s disciple, who founded Moderna, must “invest in the commercialization of mRNA technology” : Dong-A Science

Hyuk-Jin Lee, Professor at Ewha Womans University

[편집자주] The National Science and Technology Information Information Service (NTIS) is a national research and development information portal that provides services for national research and development projects and achievements. ‘Words of Praise’ began as a service within NTIS as an exchange of praise for scientists and engineers involved in national research and development. Recently, it has been expanded to interviews that convey the claims of scientists involved in national research and development and the vibrant voices of the research field. Dong-A Science, together with NTIS, edits and publishes interviews with scientists who participated in the great reviews, and shares the voices of scientists in the field of research.

“The storm will pass and we will live in a completely different world to the one before.”

As Professor Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, said, the new coronavirus infection (COVID-19) has brought new changes that we have not experienced. Among them, the most dramatic change was the vaccine that appeared about a year after the onset of COVID-19. However, there was a first contribution that helped the emergence of a vaccine. It is messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA).

The mRNA vaccine, which the public has also become familiar with, is also the fastest antagonist to the mutant coronavirus virus ever to develop. Currently, Korea is also jumping into the development of K vaccine and therapeutics using mRNA, and is struggling to secure related technologies. I met Professor Hyuk-Jin Lee from the College of Pharmacy at Ewha Womans University, who was in the fierce setting.

A study that began as a challenge to disease, pharmacy

I met Professor Lee Hyuk-jin in the so-called ‘Nano Room’ on the day the screening laboratory was temporarily reopened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “In this place called nanobang or nano, I study medicine and teach pharmacy and physio-pharmacology.” He introduced himself briefly, but in fact, Professor Lee Hyuk-jin is one of the few experts in mRNA and lipid nanoparticles (LNP) in Korea. Under the guidance of Robert Langer, founder of Moderna, a global pharmaceutical company, he investigated the development of siRNA therapeutics, nucleic acid structures, and lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) together.

“I am particularly interested in gene medicine. I believe that the pharmaceutical industry of the future will be led by next generation biopharmaceutical fields such as cells, proteins, and genes. However, in the case of such gene medicines, they are lost very quickly when they are introduced into the body, so a high therapeutic effect cannot be expected. I am continuing my research to overcome this.”

Opportunities discovered in the COVID-19 crisis

In the age of COVID-19, a vaccine is probably one of the few things that will allow us to enjoy our daily lives as we do today. This vaccine hides a keyword that explains the research achievements of Professor Hyuk-Jin Lee. ‘Lip nanoparticle (LNP)’.

“As you probably know, a new drug called mRNA is under the spotlight. However, in the case of mRNA, the stability of the body is very low, so a technology is needed for their formulation. This technology is lipid nanoparticles.”

It is very important to secure the original technology of lipid nanoparticles in order to gain competitiveness in the development of new biological drugs. Now, Korea also has the competitiveness to make mRNA vaccines and therapeutics.

The mRNA vaccines we are familiar with were made by global pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Biontech, and Moderna. Although Pfizer and Moderna have made mRNA vaccines, the lipid nanoparticle technology used to make the vaccine was developed through basic research at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Because of this, Professor Hyuk-Jin Lee is very interested not only in basic research but also in technology transfer and industrialization.

“Since I was in my PhD, I was used to doing joint research with companies. In fact, I believe that commercialized technologies can only be developed when companies know what they want. So I think of companies as collaborators who give us good ideas rather than just working partners.”

I hope my research will give hope to patients

The first thing that caught my eye when I entered Professor Lee’s laboratory was the wall with the pupils’ letters and the NBNT (NanoBiomaterial NanoTechnology LAB) 10th birthday cake. I could see her affection for him in the cake decorations made after Professor Hyuk-jin Lee in dark blue clothes, which he usually wears, and in the letters from his students that were pressed into down On the basis of this affection, perhaps, his character, who appreciates people, played a big part. Professor Hyuk-Jin Lee’s personality was not significantly different in the study. He referred to the moment when he felt happiest and proudest as a researcher when the results of basic research lead to the development of new drugs and help real patients.

“When doing drug research, I think a lot about who this substance can be used for if it is actually developed. In order to be used beyond basic research, it is necessary to develop such technologies that are in fact reproducible and can be used in a wide range. So, in our laboratory, we focus on that aspect and carry out research.”

COVID-19 vaccines are just a few of the many ways mRNA technology can be used. It can be used not only for vaccines against unknown infectious diseases, but also for anti-cancer vaccines and treatments for rare diseases. It is also attracting attention as a treatment for chronic diseases. Now is the time for operational efforts and investment to commercialize mRNA-related technologies.

“Many researchers will want to see basic research put to practical use and benefit the people. My greatest goal and hope is that the various treatments developed in our laboratory will help patients. To this end, researchers, including myself, need to conduct research that can ensure reliable data. It is also important to support substances developed through research by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other government agencies so that they can be properly evaluated and approved. “

To a colleague who walks the same path as me

“Another goal is if I can create a foundation for younger scientists and students who carry out research with me to do research in a good environment.”

Professor Lee Hyuk-jin said that the path of being a science and engineering researcher is not easy, arduous, and difficult, but because he liked this job, he was able to put his whole heart and soul into it. However, he added that ‘my younger children’ wish to study in a slightly better environment than themselves.

In that sense, Professor Lee Hyuk-jin said that NTIS makes a great contribution to informing the public about Korean science and technology, and that researchers are well aware of these efforts.

“I check a lot of different information through the NTIS service. Among them, the most useful service for a researcher like me was that I could find professors doing research in my field of interest by searching by research field. In addition, I believe that introducing researchers in various fields to the public through interviews will greatly help the field of Korean science and technology in the long run. I look forward to more NTIS activities in the future.”

One of my life ┃ The first is the person, the second is the nucleic acid medicine

I think choosing nucleic acid medicine as a research topic changed my life. And most of all, I met good friends, advisors, and fellow researchers. My friend and fellow researcher, Professor Hwang Seok-yeon (Seoul National University, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering), has been conducting research with me since my undergraduate days, and it made me realize that I am a person who love research. Next, the late Professor Taekwan Park (Department of Life Sciences, Korea Institute of Advanced Science and Technology), who was the advisor of the doctoral program, taught me how to continue meaningful research in a fun way.

Lee Hyuk-jin, professor of Pharmacy at Ewha Womans University, video interview.

Go to NTIS▶ (https://www.ntis.go.kr/ThMain.do)

NTIS (National Science and Technology Information Service) is a national research and development information portal that provides information about national research and development such as national research and development projects, tasks, and achievements in one place. It began as an exchange of praise for science and technology It has developed into an on-site interview with scientists and engineers who actively participated in national research and development projects in getting closer to this NTIS service. Come and meet the voices of the research field and lively research and development stories.

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