Super drugs for superbugs: Edmonton firm wins largest biotech licensing deal in Canadian history

February 10, 2016— Edmonton, Alberta

CEO Christopher Micetich and Dr. Sabiha Tajammul in NAEJA’s Edmonton lab. One of the largest private-sector employers of PhDs in Canada, Micetich credits NRC-IRAP support for helping to keep such jobs in Canada.

Doctors around the world are starting to speak with one voice with regards to superbugs, those ever-evolving, antibiotic-resistant bacteria with the potential to do significant harm to humans.

In hospitals in particular: patients are admitted with one disease, but sometimes emerge with an unrelated superbug infection. These bacteria are thought to afflict at least two million North Americans, costing the healthcare system some $20 billion annually.

But thanks to some timely NRC-IRAP support, pharmaceutical firm NAEJA (pronounced NAY-zhia) Pharmaceutical Inc. is showing promise with some new technology developed in its Edmonton labs – so much promise that they’ve signed the largest biotech licensing deal ever in Canada, according to Deloitte, and showing other medium–size companies what’s possible.

Responding to evolving healthcare opportunities

Micetich, a serial entrepreneur, recently picked up an Entrepreneur of the Year award, in part for signing one of the largest ever biotech licensing deals in Canada in early 2015.

An early drug research and development company established in 1987, NAEJA had a track record of drug discovery, including cancers, inflammations, as well as cardiovascular and infectious diseases. Over the last few years, its scientists developed what’s known as a beta-lactamase inhibitor, or BLI, which, when taken together with existing antibiotics like penicillin, made antibiotics effective again in suppressing super bacteria. Enough promise was shown in the lab that Big Pharma came calling.

NAEJA has made technology breakthroughs with NRC-IRAP’s assistance for more than a decade. Crucially, this project was developed with the advice and counsel of now-retired Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) Dr. Eric Swanson, in late 2009, just as private sector funding was drying up because of the global recession. “NRC-IRAP put money into the company, which enabled them to further develop this compound, up to the point that they got it into Phase 1 clinical trials, which attracted Switzerland’s Roche and Japan’s Meiji Seika,” said current ITA Charles Otieno. “It would have been hard for them initially without that support, but NRC-IRAP was willing to take the risk to invest in this new technology.”

NAEJA CEO and co-founder Christopher G. Micetich, a serial entrepreneur (he founded numerous other firms in areas as diverse as chemistry, consulting, and coffee bean roasting), said he was proud of the fact that NAEJA did most of the drug development in Edmonton prior to licensing it out.

“The more funding we receive, the faster we advance our program, and the longer it stays in house,” he said. “If we were forced to raise outside funding too early in the discovery process, we would have risked losing our program.”

One of the largest private-sector employers of PhDs in Canada, Micetich says NRC-IRAP research monies helped keep those high-skilled, high-paying laboratory jobs in Canada for longer.

“The more funding we receive, the faster we advance our program, and the longer it stays in house. If we were forced to raise outside funding too early in the discovery process, we would have risked losing our program."

Spinning off new companies

Instead, NAEJA was able to invest time in the lab, and only later spin off Fedora Pharmaceuticals, which licensed the BLI IP. In early 2015, Fedora signed the massive deal with Roche and Meiji Seika for Phase 1 clinical development and commercialization of the BLI – an amount that turned heads across Canada and showed other Canadian firms what was possible, said Otieno.

NAEJA is committed to continue on this path. Currently, it is looking at the next generation of superbugs, so that in a couple of years, it will be ready for them, too.

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