Berkeley Lab and Genentech Are Building Better Lipid Nanoparticles for Drug Delivery

An artistic rendering of lipid nanoparticles showing multiple layers that take on different molecular arrangements, giving the particle varying properties. (Credit: Jenny Nuss/Berkeley Lab).

Many diseases can be successfully treated in the simple environment of a cell culture dish, but to successfully treat real people, the drug agent has to take a journey through the infinitely more complex environment within our bodies and arrive, intact, inside the affected cells. This process, called drug delivery, is one of the most significant barriers in medicine. A collaboration between Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Genentech, a member of the Roche Group, is working to break through some of the drug delivery bottlenecks by designing the most effective lipid nanoparticles (LNPs)--tiny spherical pouches made of fatty molecules that encapsulate therapeutic agents until they dock with cell membranes and release their contents. The first drug to use LNPs was approved in 2018, but the delivery method rose to global prominence with the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA Covid vaccines. “It’s quite a smart system, because if you just deliver the RNA itself to the human body, the RNA is degraded by nucleases and cannot easily cross the cell membrane due to its size and charge, but the LNPs deliver it safely into the cell,” explained co-lead author Chun-Wan Yen, PhD, a Senior Principal Scientist in Genentech’s Small Molecule Pharmaceutical Sciences group.

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