McMaster University professor emeritus Frank Graham has been recognized for the impact of his scientific work almost five decades ago which is being used for production of several COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

Last week, the National Research Council of Canada formally recognized Frank Graham, Distinguished University Professor of pathology and molecular medicine and biology, for his creation of the HEK 293 cell line and its importance in the production of biologic molecules, including current COVID-19 vaccine product candidates.

“As we look ahead to a possible COVID-19 vaccine, it’s important to also take a moment to recognize the invaluable contributions that Dr. Graham has made to such an undertaking with his development of the HEK 293 cell line,” said Iain Stewart, president of the NRC.

“The NRC is proud to formally recognize and celebrate Dr. Graham’s outstanding contributions to science.”

At McMaster, Graham is recognized as a research ‘rock star’.

“As a molecular virologist, I’ve been aware of Frank’s work my entire career as he definitely holds ‘rock star’ status in our field,” said Karen Mossman, McMaster’s vice-president, research. “He is so deserving of this honour as his work has paved the way for so many, and his contributions will continue to influence medical advances for years to come.” 

Paul O’Byrne, dean and vice-president of the Faculty of Health Sciences, added: “McMaster has led health research for many years, and it is wonderful that Dr. Graham is being recognized for his work that created the basis for part of Canada’s response to COVID-19.”

In the Netherlands in the 1970s, Graham developed the HEK 293 cell line, which is now widely used for academic research and in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries around the world.

Graham worked in the lab of Dutch scientist Dr. Alex van der Eb, where he developed a new method called calcium phosphate transfection for introducing DNA into eukaryotic cells. Using this technique, he was able to generate the cell line called HEK 293, which contains and expresses the human Adenovirus 5 (Ad5) transforming genes.

On his return to Canada, Dr. Graham continued to characterize the HEK 293 cell line and, in collaboration with his students and colleagues at McMaster, he used it in the development of numerous Ad5-based viral vectors for gene transfer and potential recombinant viral vaccines. Both HEK 293 cells and reagents for construction of Ad vectors were widely distributed by Graham to the scientific community for studies on gene therapy and vaccine development.

The HEK 293 cell line has since undergone significant modifications in laboratories across the globe. For example, the NRC has developed a proprietary version of the HEK 293 cell line, referred to as HEK293-SF-3F6, which has known and specific properties that make it a very strong starting point for the subsequent development of vaccines and therapeutics for human health. It is used for the production of a variety of COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

One use, in collaboration with the late Ludvik Prevec, McMaster professor of biology, Graham engineered an Ad5 vector expressing rabies antigens that has led to the development of a vaccine bait against rabies that is broadly used in Canada and the U.S. for control of rabies in wildlife. These vectors, and those made by other laboratories, are designed to have deletions of the viral genes responsible for transformation and are defective for growth in cells other than HEK 293 cells. This makes such vectors relatively safe for use as human vaccines.

Frank Graham said he was pleased with the advances made using the cell line.

“I take great satisfaction from the fact that the HEK 293 cell line that I created in 1973 has contributed significantly to advances in the fields of gene therapy and development of vaccines. HEK 293 cells have become one of the most commonly used mammalian cell lines both in academic research and in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.”

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Graham retired to Italy from McMaster University in 2003. He also holds the Robert L. Noble Prize from the Canadian Cancer Society, and he a member of the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Community of Distinction.