How Things Work
5th February 2018
From the age of four Helen McCarthy was fixing electric bells and re-assembling plugs for her grandfather Harry: “I was always interested in science and how things work,” recalls Helen, now Professor of Nanomedicine at the School of Pharmacy at Queens University, Belfast, and Chief Executive of the award-winning, highly successful tech start-up, Phion Therapeutics: “I remember going to my grandparents’ house and my grandfather would be disassembling plugs or the electric bell and he’d tell me to put it back together. “ He’d say ‘Helen we have a problem. The front door bell doesn’t work. How can we fix it?’ He’d hand me a screwdriver and watch me fix the bell while he stood back and asked questions like ‘why does this go here’ and ‘what would you do about this?’” As a result, the Belfast native recalls, she now enjoys DIY – but more importantly, working with her grandfather sparked a lifelong interest in how things work.
Words: Áilín Quinlan
After grammar school Helen earned a first class degree in Biological Sciences and a PhD in Marine Parasitology from Ulster University before joining Queens University School of Pharmacy as a lecturer in 2006. If working with her late grandfather was a catalyst for Helen, the lectureship was another: “I had to set up my own research group. I knew there was a problem with, for example, the delivery of nucleic acids, so I decided to focus my research on developing peptides that would mimic viruses,” she recalls. In May 2017, after many years of research, she and a Boston-based entrepreneur David Tabaczynski, set up Phion Therapeutics, so called, quips Helen, “because the delivery system is pH responsive and it delivers ions!” The whole premise of Phion Therapeutics, the scientist explains, is that there’s no point designing the best drug in the world if you cannot deliver it to where you want it to go: “Take, for example, DNA drugs – they need to go into the nucleus of cells, or RNA drugs, which need to go into the cytoplasm. If you can get your drug where it needs to go it will have a much greater therapeutic effect. There are many diseases that these nucleic acids could treat but the lack of delivery system is preventing their progress’.
“Our technology is different from others in that it is a unique peptide composed of amino acids that can protect the cargo and overcome biological barriers. When you add the peptide to the drug, nanoparticles form that readily enter cells. The peptide also protects the drug from degradation.” “We have a version of our system for local delivery – where for example it could be used for vaccines or wound healing – and we have a version that can target tumours systemically.” Basically, she explains Phion Therapeutics is a platform technology that can deliver not only nucleic acids but other negatively-charged small molecules such as bisphosphonates, a class of drugs used to treat osteoporosis and similar diseases. “If you can deliver drugs specifically to where they need to go then a much lower dose is required because the drug is more effective. Another advantage of targeted delivery is avoidance of off-target effects,” explains Helen.
Last October, she presented the technology at the prestigious Partnership in Drug Discovery Conference in Boston: “This conference gave us the opportunity to present our technology in front of many large pharmaceutical companies. As a consequence, we have partnerships ongoing with many large pharmaceutical firms all over the world. It’s very exciting! We’ve also been working with Cell & Gene Therapy Catapult, which is a not-for-profit government organisation in the UK to help spinout technologies in this space.” The same month the company won the Invent Awards’ Northern Ireland top prize of £13,000 (about €15,000) and just a few weeks later Phion Therapeutics was crowned winner of the prestigious Seedcorn Investor Readiness award from InterTradeIreland, scooping €100,000 in prize funding. Shortly the company is launching its research kit E-pHect – this, Helen explains, will be an online kit which researchers can use to genetically modify cells for research purposes. The goal for Phion Therapeutics is to have its own premises in the next year or so: “Our technology can be applied to a range of medical conditions from cancer, osteoporosis to wound-healing – basically any condition that requires more effective delivery of drugs. “Our business model is that we partner with large pharmaceutical companies which have drugs they want to take to clinical trial and by using our system, these drugs are essentially delivered more effectively and with a better therapeutic index for patients.”
Given the global campaign to encourage more girls into the science and technology sector, Helen has some pithy advice for science-orientated females: “Don’t let gender come into the conversation. It’s not relevant. My second piece of advice is never stop asking ‘why.’ The moment you think you know it all, you’ve lost it!” Wouldn’t her grandfather be proud!