Appili Therapeutics has struck an agreement to work on a vaccine that could protect people against a potential bioterror threat.
The Halifax drug discovery company said Monday it signed a licence agreement with the National Research Council of Canada to help develop ATI-1701, to vaccinate against tularemia. The vaccine will protect against bacteria called Francisella tularensis, which can cause tularemia, a highly infectious disease also known as rabbit fever.
People can become infected with tularemia through tick and deer fly bites, drinking infected water or by simply inhaling the disease if it becomes airborne. This is why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists F. Tularensis (the bacteria that causes the disease) as a Category A pathogen, a bacteria that poses the highest threat to national security and public health.
“Francisella tularensis is a very infectious bacteria,” Sean McBride, Appili vice-president of business development, said in the announcement. “A small number (of bacteria) can cause tularemia disease. If used as a weapon, the bacteria would likely be made airborne for exposure by inhalation.”
He added: “People who inhale an infectious aerosol would generally experience severe respiratory illness, including life-threatening pneumonia and systemic infection, if they are not treated,”
Aerosolized F. tularensis was studied by the Soviet Union during the Second World War and the Cold War for military purposes. The Soviets also developed a vaccine, but with limited effectiveness.
The NRC’s ATI-1701 compound was developed through genetic engineering and has shown a strong immune response to the F. tularensis strain.
“The NRC has developed an elegant attenuated vaccine that is showing dramatic results, better than the current vaccination,” Appili CEO Kevin Sullivan said in an interview.
Wayne Conlan led the team that developed NRC’s ATI-1701 compound. In the statement, he said: “It is very rewarding to see our team’s research on this vaccine progress from our labs to the next stage of development. We are delighted to partner with Appili on this important program designed to protect the health of Canadians exposed to bioterror threats.”
Part of the funding to develop the vaccine is from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a part of the U.S. Department of Defense, which has invested $6.2 million into a five-year program to develop the tularemia vaccine.
The licence agreement with the NRC grants Appili — which has raised money from Innovacorp and through the investment boutique Bloom Burton & Co. — exclusive worldwide rights to develop and commercialize the tularemia vaccine.
Under the agreement, Appili is responsible for the preclinical and clinical testing to evaluate the safety of the ATI-1701 vaccine in humans as per the guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada.
The vaccine won’t be commercially available for another 3-5 years but Sullivan says this is the right step to hinder the development of a tularemia bioweapon.
“It’s one of the goals of the West to develop the tularemia vaccine in case there is a bioterror attack,” said Sullivan. “We want to minimize the threat of a bioterror weapon to a point where the adversary doesn’t even bother making one.”