Professor Helen McCarthy

“You can have the best drug in the world but if you can’t deliver it to where it needs to go, it’s like a fire engine with a flat tyre, it can’t get to the fire.” - Professor McCarthy

How often do we hear about a ground-breaking new drug or vaccine that will prevent or combat disease? But that is just part of the battle. If the delivery of the drug into the body is not efficient, it can fulfil only a small degree of its potential.

However, over the last few years new technologies are beginning to make a massive difference in the way key drugs and vaccines are delivered, and Northern Ireland is playing its part in this fast-developing area.

Since 2017, Prof Helen McCarthy and her colleagues at Belfast-based pHion Therapeutics (a spin-out from the School of Pharmacy, QUB) have been at the forefront of a new technology, which has applications in many fields of medicine, including mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.


Using a stealth-like peptide to deliver the mRNA vaccine ensures the drug gets to its destination without being detected as foreign. The peptide also condenses the mRNA into nanoparticles that are stable at room temperature. This means that the vaccine does not need to be stored at very low temperatures, a vital advantage in areas where such storage is difficult. With funding from the UK Government’s Innovate UK programme, pHion therapeutics are applying this technology to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Professor McCarthy, who comes from Dunmurry, on the outskirts of Belfast, has had an interest in science since childhood. “I always had an inquisitive mind and was asking awkward questions,” she smiles. “I think I was attracted to science because there was so much that was unknown. When I finished my PhD, I realised I really enjoyed discovering new things and solving problems using science.”

Having taken her PhD at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown, she then worked as a research fellow in gene therapy under the guidance and mentorship of Professor Tracy Robson and Professor David Hirst in their radiation and cancer biology research team.

Her journey towards the development of delivery systems began when she secured a lectureship in the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s University in 2006. Much of this early research was focused on improving the delivery of nucleic acids such as DNA and mRNA for cancer applications. From this research Prof McCarthy and her team began to invent their own drug delivery systems and now have several patents in this space.

In 2017, Professor McCarthy co-founded a spin out company, pHion Therapeutics, to take these delivery peptides to the next level. They have received strong support from the UK Catapult network, a UK government - backed agency which helps innovative companies with research. One of the company’s first licensing deals was with the Cell and Gene Catapult which operates out of London’s Guy’s Hospital.

They have also received crucial funding from both Innovate UK and Invest NI. Amongst projects backed by Innovate UK is the development of a therapeutic vaccine for patients with cervical cancer, which affects over 200 million women worldwide. That is just one of a pipeline of vaccines Professor McCarthy and her colleagues at pHion are currently developing (

pHion’s remarkable success has been recognised with a number of prestigious awards, including Invent Northern Ireland in 2017 and the All-Ireland Investor Readiness Seedcorn Award (2017/18), a unique double. Professor McCarthy also won the QUB Vice-Chancellor’s Innovation Award in 2018.

“It’s not an easy route,” Professor McCarthy says, “but I am not happy unless I am being challenged and it is so exciting to see the success of the technologies we are developing here. It’s also very important to me to build a therapeutic vaccine company in Belfast to retain the talent we have. We have had offers to move the company but this technology was born and bred in Belfast and that is where we are going to develop it.”