Canadian company behind key COVID-19 vaccine technology signs big development deal with Pfizer
Acuitas Therapeutics Inc. has quietly become one of Canada’s most profitable biopharmaceutical companies by providing a critical piece of technology used to deliver the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine inside the body. Now the Vancouver company has signed an agreement with Pfizer Inc. to expand its efforts to help provide a range of other treatments.
The US drug giant on Monday announced an option agreement to use Acuitas’ lipid nanoparticle (LNP) technology to develop up to 10 vaccines and therapies, after LNP was found to be a key part of the development of its COVID-19 vaccine with BioNTech SE. Terms were not disclosed. The collaboration was one of a set of partnership agreements unveiled by Pfizer to expand its use of messenger RNA (mRNA) technology.
“Our rapid delivery of the world’s first mRNA-LNP vaccine has made the promise of ‘combined technology’ clear,” Pfizer Chief Scientific Officer Mikael Dolsten said in a statement.
“We are making significant investments to harness the power of mRNA-LNP technology and deliver potential breakthrough new vaccines and treatments that address significant unmet patient needs. The Acuitas agreement “expands our LNP capabilities and allows us to explore more projects…where mRNA-LNP technology has potential for success.”
This is the first direct engagement between Pfizer and Acuitas, which had worked with BioNTech before the German company joined Pfizer to produce its mRNA vaccine. And that points to more opportunities for Acuitas, which has grown around 75% annually in recent years and has revenues of over US$100 million, with most of that revenue going to net income.
“This is an important milestone for Acuitas as it demonstrates the acceptance of [mRNA] technology in general and our delivery technology by a large pharmaceutical company,” Acuitas CEO Thomas Madden said in an interview.
“Eighteen months ago, the companies developing mRNA were small or medium-sized biotech companies. [developers]. Big pharma like Pfizer was keeping tabs on the ground but hadn’t dipped their toe in the water. With the success of COVID-19 vaccines, we are now seeing pharmaceutical companies jump in with abandon. »
LNP is best described as a cross between a delivery driver, bodyguard, and stager for mRNA, a molecule that instructs cells in the body to make proteins. In the case of COVID-19, mRNA vaccines trick the immune system into creating a response to fight it off.
But mRNA is fragile. He cannot survive the journey through the cells on his own; he needs TNL’s help. Dr. Madden compared mRNA to a delicate ornament that one buys online; in the analogy, LNP wraps the ornament in protective packaging, delivers and unpacks the package to its destination.
Dr. Madden’s 45-person company has succeeded by avoiding the time-consuming and costly labor of drug development. Instead, he licenses his technology to companies that apply it to their molecules in the lab. Acuitas has two dozen such partners who are developing a range of therapies, from gene-editing drugs to monoclonal antibodies, and targeting diseases such as malaria, HIV and tuberculosis.
“We expect the number of partners to increase in 2022,” Dr Madden said. “The more partners we have, the less chance we have of a clinical candidate failing or a partner leaving the therapeutic space. I am delighted that the versatility of mRNA technology can allow us to develop more effective protection against historically difficult diseases. »
Acuitas has a messy history. Dr Madden emigrated to Canada from Great Britain four decades ago to do postdoctoral work in biochemistry with Professor Pieter Cullis of the University of British Columbia (now President of Acuitas and recent winner of the Prince Mahidol of Medicine 2021). Dr. Madden co-founded a startup called Inex Pharmaceuticals. But it was scaled down after the company merged with another in the late 2000s to become Tekmira.
He and other former employees founded AlCana Technologies, the precursor to Acuitas, in 2009. After a lawsuit between AlCana and Tekmira, his company won the right to produce drug delivery technology under license from their ex-employer as part of a settlement.
Acuitas worked with Moderna, another future COVID-19 vaccine maker, during the 2010s until Tekmira, now Arbutus Biopharma Corp., terminated Acuitas’ license. After another lawsuit, the parties settled in 2018. Acuitas and Moderna parted ways, but Dr. Madden’s company had by then developed intellectual property to supply its own brand of TNL.
Acuitas has remained self-funded and has no plans to go public, Dr. Madden said. “The business has always been profitable, so we haven’t had to invest outside. This continues to be the case.
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