Tekmira Nails $140M Defense Contract to Make RNAi Drug for Ebola

Xconomy Seattle — 

Score one huge U.S. defense contract for the Canadians. Vancouver, BC-based Tekmira Pharmaceuticals (TSX: TKM), a leading developer of technology for RNA interference drugs, said today it has secured a contract from the U.S. military worth as much as $140 million to make a drug that can effectively combat the deadly Ebola virus.

This is all part of the U.S. military’s biodefense effort, to fight against any effort to turn Ebola into a bioterror weapon. Tekmira is eligible to receive $34.7 million over the next three years in the first phase of the contract, with a goal of developing an RNAi-based treatment for Ebola that passes animal tests and the first phase of human safety testing. The U.S. Department of Defense, through its Transformational Medical Technologies program, has the option to finance further development required for FDA approval, which could bring the total budget for the program to $140 million.

Tekmira won the contract two months after it published results in The Lancet which showed that its RNAi candidate was able to offer 100 percent protection to primates who were exposed to an otherwise lethal dose of Ebola virus.

“This contract is a significant accomplishment for Tekmira and a proud moment for our team,” said Tekmira CEO Mark Murray, in a statement.

Mark Murray

Mark Murray

RNAi is one of the hottest concepts in biotech, especially since its discoverers won the Nobel Prize in 2006, which I noted in this feature on Tekmira in May 2009. RNAi drugs are designed to specifically hit targets on cells that other drugs can’t, and to silence the genetic root cause of disease. The problem is that small interfering RNA drugs can get chewed up by enzymes in the body, or flushed through the kidneys long before they ever get to the diseased cells. Some leading RNAi companies, like Cambridge, MA-based Alnylam Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ALNY), have tried to work around this with locally-delivered drugs that don’t have to circulate through the body, but only a limited number of diseases can be treated that way. Tekmira’s approach uses lipid nanoparticle capsules that are designed to protect the drug in the body until it gets to the intended cells.

Besides Alnylam, Tekmira has found a number of prominent supporters for its delivery technique, including pharma giants Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, and Roche.

The new deal with the U.S. military will certainly help strengthen Tekmira’s cash balance and enable it to continue pushing the R&D edge with what’s possible in RNAi. But Tekmira was careful to point out that not all of Uncle Sam’s money will go north of the border. The company notes that it has a subsidiary in Washington state, Protiva, and it estimates that more than 15 percent of its award will go to subcontractors in the U.S.

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