Armando Balboni, the CEO of Halifax drug discovery company Appili Therapeutics is leaving his role to become the company’s chairman and rejoin the United States military as Director of the Life Sciences Research Center at the United States Air Force academy. He will also oversea a deal that will see Appili produce a tularemia vaccine for the Department of Defence.

The deal, worth US$14 million over two years, is an expansion of an existing agreement from February. It was originally slated to see the Department of Defence spend US$10 million to fund Appili’s “nonclinical” manufacturing and regulatory activities related to the vaccine, dubbed ATI-1701, with the ultimate goal of filing a new drug application with the Food and Drug Administration.

Balboni was assistant professor at West Point before joining Appili in 2022. He will return to the military as the principal investigator for Appili’s vaccine trials. Don Cilla, previously Appili’s chief development officer, will replace Balboni as CEO and president.

“I am delighted to be chosen for this tremendous opportunity to build on Appili’s foundation and to renew our focus in infectious disease and biodefense treatments,” said Cilla in a statement.

“We’re grateful for this funding, which will advance ATI-1701 to the next stage of development.”

Tularemia is caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis — the weaponized form of which is a product of synthetic biology, meaning it has been modified in a lab. It is part of the bioweapon arsenals of Russia and North Korea, and infections are notoriously difficult to treat. Antibiotics, for example, are largely ineffective.

The Appili vaccine is a “live attenuated vaccine,” which means it includes a weakened form of the live pathogen. So it will not be able to act as a vaccine platform, as has been the case with mRNA technology for COVID-19 vaccines.

But Balboni previously said the scientific knowledge gleaned from developing a vaccine for a disease as complex to treat as tularemia will have applications in combatting other illnesses.

“What we do know is that, by targeting something that's such a difficult target, the information we gather here is absolutely going to be useful for other potentially deadly infections … and in particular, bacterial infections,” he said.

Results from a preclinical study of the tularemia vaccine conducted last year showed it improved survival rates of a lethal dose of Francisella tularensis from zero percent to 29 percent. That study was funded by the DoD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency — the same group providing the US$14 million — and conducted by Kansas City medical research nonprofit MRIGlobal. Now, Appili and Balboni will continue that research and development regimen.

Listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, Appili's share have been hammered in the past couple of years, losing 97 percent of their value since May 2020. On Monday, they gained a penny or 25 percent to close at 5 cents, giving the company a market capitalization of just over $6 million.