Interview with Professor Helen McCarthy


Interview with Professor Helen McCarthy

Publish Date

Helen McCarthy

Professor at Queen’s University Belfast

CEO of pHion Therapeutics


After being rejected for funding many times, Professor Helen McCarthy managed to fund her research and company, pHion Therapeutics, focused on non-viral delivery systems for nanomedicine applications, and by that, give everybody a lesson on resilience…

Prof. McCarthy completed a 1st Class Honours degree in Biological Sciences, specialising in Applied Ecological Sciences at Ulster University (Coleraine Campus) in 1997. After finishing a PhD in marine parasitology at the same university in the Jordanstown Campus ahead of schedule, she managed to have 6 months to focus on learning molecular biology techniques. Hence, she moved to a different lab to learn more about gene therapy and molecular biology, switching marine life for cloning and rt-PCR. Here, under the mentorship of Prof David Hirst and Prof Tracy Robson, she secured a postdoctoral position in 2001 to investigate prostate cancer gene therapy using radiation inducible promoters and when the team moved to the School of Pharmacy at Queen’s University Belfast, she obtained a lectureship in 2006. In addition, she was awarded £5,000 to travel to the USA to work with Dr Arash Hatefi in order to explore nanomedicine and drug delivery for nucleic acids. One of the key learnings was that viruses are excellent at entering cells and that their protein sequences could be used to create synthetic peptides. Prof McCarthy went onto design a  30-amino-acid peptide that could condense any nucleic acid into nanoparticles with ideal physiochemical characteristics for cellular entry and endosomal release.  These peptides are pH responsive and when trapped in the endosome, they become more alpha-helical and release the cargo into the cytoplasm. As they are made of natural amino acids, the issues with immunogenicity are circumvented.  In order to fund this research, nearly 50 grants were written over 4 years, as the field did not believe that such peptides could deliver nucleic acids.

Professor McCarthy’s discovery has led to several collaborations and funded projects with Prof. Tracy Robson to deliver the antiangiogenic protein FKBPL, Prof Ryan Donnelly and his microneedle arrays technology for vaccination purposes, Prof Nicholas Dunne to deliver hydroxyapatite for bone regeneration, and to fabricate an electrospun patch with nanoparticles for wound healing, which validates the wide-spread utility of this platform technology. Indeed, the versatility of this delivery system attracted attention from the UK Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, who saw the potential and whose support helped her realise that the technology could be spun out. Subsequently, pHion Therapeutics ( spun out on 8th May 2017, with its first license to Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult for ex-vivo applications. Nowadays, she is closely working with the Medicines Discovery Catapult and the Centre for Process Innovation as part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. This framework of Catapults in the UK is a tremendous resource that has really helped to develop pHion’s roadmap.  Notable success for Phion Therapeutics has come from winning Invent Northern Ireland (2017), the All-Ireland Investor Readiness Seedcorn Award (2017/18) and Prof McCarthy won the QUB Vice-Chancellor’s Innovation Award (2018). Support from Invest Northern Ireland, and £1M of non-dilutive funding from Innovate UK (2019) has helped to develop pHion Therapeutics.   All of these recognitions “have helped us to keep the company up and running, to gather pre-clinical data to potentially start phase-I studies in 2022 and to expand the team. I must mention at this point that even though I am the figure head of the research group and pHion Therapeutics, the real heroes are the PhD students, postdocs, and employees, who are really making all of this happen. My main goal is to create a sustainable pharmaceutical company in Belfast and place Northern Ireland on the map of innovation regarding nucleic acid therapeutics”

Prof McCarthy combines her academic and entrepreneurial career with competitive golf and outdoor activities with her wife, Denise, “in fact, last Saturday we decided to go out for coffee, so we ending up hiking the Mourne Mountains for a few hours and having a flask of coffee at Lough Shannagh. What else would you do in December?”