Halifax drug discovery company Appili Therapeutics has inked a US$10 million (C$12.67 million) deal with the United States Department of Defence to test a vaccine against tularemia — a highly contagious infection that can be deadly when introduced into the lungs and is well-suited to use as a bioweapon.

The vaccine technology grew out of research and development work by the National Research Council Canada before being licensed by Appili. Now, Appili will continue an R&D regime that was previously helmed by one of its testing partners.

The $13 million will go towards “nonclinical,” manufacturing and regulatory activities, with the ultimate goal of filing a new drug application with the Food and Drug Administration.

“What we've seen within Russia, in North Korea, is with increasingly unstable governments, there's a fear of a potential weapon like this,” Appili CEO Armand Balboni said in an interview. “And so we've been working on this for a long time.”

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.

Balboni said that tularemia can be as much as 1,000 times as potent as Anthrax if it is introduced into the lungs, with just five or six microscopic spores being enough to prove deadly.

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 added that 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.

“Think tuberculosis, for example. What we learn here about how the human immune response is activated will absolutely help those efforts going forward.”

Tuberculosis, although largely eradicated in the Western world, remains relatively common in countries including Ethiopia and India.

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 $13 million — and conducted by Kansas City medical research nonprofit MRIGlobal.

“This has been the result of many, many years of effort, not just by us, but also originally scientists at the NRC,” said Balboni. “This was the basis of their entire careers, to produce a viable vaccine moving forward.”

The tularaemia announcement comes on the heels of a difficult year for Appili shareholders, with the stock sliding from a high of $1.22 in May to 14 cents on Monday, reflecting disappointing trial results from Appili’s COVID-19 drug Favipiravir, which it licensed from Japan’s FUJIFILM Toyama Chemical Company. Shares rose by a cent and half on news of the DoD deal.


Disclosure: Entrevestor reports on startups and the innovation economy in Atlantic Canada, and our coverage of publicly listed companies focuses on innovation rather than on investment potential. This report should not be interpreted as a recommendation to either buy or sell shares.