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Acuitas Therapeutics Inc. has quietly become one of Canada’s most lucrative biopharma 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 inked a deal with Pfizer Inc. to expand its efforts to help deliver a range of other treatments.

The U.S. drug giant on Monday announced an option deal to use Acuitas’s lipid nanoparticle (LNP) technology to develop up to 10 vaccines and therapies, after LNP proved to be a critical 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 deals unveiled by Pfizer to expand its use of messenger RNA (mRNA) technology.

“Our swift delivery of the world’s first mRNA-LNP-based vaccine made clear the promise” of the combined technology,” Pfizer chief scientific officer Mikael Dolsten said in a release.

“We are making significant investments to harness the power of the mRNA-LNP technology and deliver potential new breakthrough vaccines and therapeutics that address significant unmet needs for patients.” The Acuitas agreement “expands our LNP capabilities and allows us to explore more projects … where mRNA-LNP technology holds potential for success.”

It’s the first direct engagement between Pfizer and Acuitas, which had worked with BioNTech before the German company joined with Pfizer to produce their mRNA vaccine. And it points to more opportunities for Acuitas, which has grown by about 75 per cent annually in recent years and whose revenues exceed US$100-million, with most of that falling to the bottom line.

“This is an important milestone for Acuitas as it illustrates the acceptance of [mRNA] technology generally and our delivery technology by a large pharma company,” Acuitas chief executive officer Thomas Madden said in an interview.

“Eighteen months ago, the companies developing mRNAs were small or mid-sized biotech [developers]. Big pharma like Pfizer kept their eye on the field but hadn’t dipped their toe in the water. With the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, we’re now seeing pharma companies jumping in with abandon.”

LNP is best described as a cross between a delivery driver, a bodyguard and a stager for mRNA, a molecule that brings instructions to the body’s cells to make proteins. In the case of COVID-19, mRNA vaccines prompt the immune system to create a response to fight it.

But mRNA is fragile. It can’t survive the trip into the cells on its own; it needs LNP’s help. Dr. Madden has likened mRNA to a delicate ornament one buys online; in the analogy, LNP wraps the ornament in protective packaging, delivers and unwraps the package at its destination.

Dr. Madden’s 45-person company has found success by eschewing the costly, time-consuming work of developing drugs. Instead, it licenses its technology to companies that apply it to their molecules in the lab. Acuitas has two dozen such partners that are developing a range of therapies, from gene-editing drugs to monoclonal antibodies, and targeting diseases including malaria, HIV and tuberculosis.

“We expect the number of partners to grow in 2022,” Dr. Madden said. “The more partners that we have, the less risk we have from any one clinical candidate failing or any one partner moving out of the therapeutic space. I’m excited that the versatility of mRNA technology may allow us to develop more effective protection against historically challenging diseases..”

Acuitas has a messy backstory. Dr. Madden emigrated to Canada from Britain four decades ago to do postdoctoral biochemistry work with University of British Columbia professor Pieter Cullis (now chairman of Acuitas and a recent winner of the 2021 Prince Mahidol Award for Medicine). Dr. Madden co-founded a startup called Inex Pharmaceuticals. But he was downsized after the company merged with another in the late 2000s to become Tekmira.

He and other former employees founded AlCana Technologies, the forerunner to Acuitas, in 2009. After a lawsuit between AlCana and Tekmira, his company secured the right to produce drug-delivery technology licensed from their ex-employer as part of a settlement.

Acuitas worked with Moderna, another future COVID-19 vaccine maker, through the 2010s until Tekmira, now Arbutus Biopharma Corp., ended Acuitas’s licence. 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 provide its own brand of LNP.

Acuitas has remained self-financed and has no plans to go public, Dr. Madden said. “The company has always been profitable so we haven’t had to go outside for investment. That continues to be the case.”

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