Recognizing the scientific impact of Dr. Frank Graham’s HEK 293 cell line

News release

September 25, 2020 – Ottawa, Ontario – National Research Council of Canada

The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) today formally recognized the scientific impact of the HEK 293 cell line, originally created by Dr. Frank Graham nearly 50 years ago, and its importance in the production of biologic molecules, including current COVID-19 vaccine product candidates.

In the Netherlands in the 1970s, Dr. 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.

Dr. 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 University, 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 Dr. 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.


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

– Mr. Iain Stewart, President of the National Research Council of Canada

“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.”

– Dr. Frank Graham, Professor Emeritus and University Professor, McMaster University

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About the National Research Council of Canada

Founded in 1916, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is Canada's largest federal research and development organization. The NRC partners with Canadian industry to take research impacts from the lab to the marketplace. This market-driven focus is designed to shorten the time between early-stage research and development and commercialization, enhance people's lives and address some of the world's most pressing challenges.

About Dr. Frank Graham

Dr. Graham is a recipient of the Robert L. Noble Prize from the Canadian Cancer Society and is Professor Emeritus in the Departments of Biology and Pathology and Molecular Medicine at McMaster University. He is also recognized as a Distinguished University Professor by McMaster. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Dr. Graham retired to Italy from McMaster University in 2003.

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