Liquidia Technologies, a small Research Triangle Park drug-development company, has signed a transformational licensing deal with pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline that could be worth up to several hundred million dollars.
“It’s the big step up that we’ve been wanting,” said Liquidia CEO Neal Fowler.
Liquidia said Wednesday that GSK has licensed the rights to use Liquidia’s proprietary nanotechnology in conjunction with its own compounds to develop vaccines and inhaled drugs for respiratory diseases. The multi-year deal calls for GSK to make a variety of payments – up-front money as well as research-and-development, milestone and royalty payments – that could amount to “up to several hundred million dollars” if all goes well.
GSK has a huge vaccine franchise – vaccine sales topped $5.6 billion last year. And its blockbuster asthma medicine Advair, which is inhaled, has racked up billions of dollars in sales.
GSK also has acquired an undisclosed minority stake in Liquidia, which was founded in 2004 and today has 52 workers.
Liquidia and GSK, which are collaborating on the drug-development efforts, are neighbors. London-based GSK has 3,800 workers at its U.S. headquarters in RTP and another 600 employees in Zebulon.
GSK, which licenses technology from upstarts like Liquidia to supplement its in-house R&D efforts, can pick and choose its partners from around the globe.
Still, Liquidia isn’t the first local company that GSK has teamed with. GSK licensed the rights to the migraine drug Treximet from Chapel Hill’s Pozen in 2003 and has marketed the drug since its approval by federal regulators in 2008.
Liquidia was founded in 2004 based on the nanotechnology research of renowned scientist Joseph DeSimone, who’s on the faculty of both N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill. DeSimone founded the company with colleagues from UNC.
Liquidia’s proprietary PRINT technology, or Particle Replication In Non-Wetting Templates, is a platform technology – that is, a technology with potentially broad applications.
Fowler said the cash infusion from GSK will enable Liquidia to hire between five and 10 scientists over the next few months to help it delve into other opportunities.
“Liquidia is probably the most exciting platform opportunity we have seen in some time in life sciences, and certainly the most exciting platform we have seen in RTP ever,” said Eric Linsley, managing partner of Durham venture capital firm Pappas Ventures. Venture capital firms including Pappas and the Wakefield Group, which has a Triangle office, have invested more than $50 million in Liquidia.
PRINT enables precise engineering of the size and shape of microscopic particles, which can then be combined with drugs for delivery to targeted tissues within the body. That has the potential to make the drugs safer – because they only go where they’re supposed to go – and more effective, because more concentrated doses can be used.
“There is a reason in biology that bacteria and viruses are all the many different sizes and shapes they are,” Fowler said. “What we are trying to do is mimic that biology.”
The technology is especially attractive for inhaled drugs for respiratory ailments, “where what you inhale is critical,” noted GSK spokeswoman Melinda Stubbee.
Last year, Liquidia demonstrated the safety of its technology in a Phase I trial of an experimental flu vaccine that involved 150 patients, Fowler said.
Liquidia has retained the rights to develop certain respiratory drugs and vaccines, including its flu vaccine, which is targeted at elderly patients, and a pneumonia vaccine. Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation invested $10 million in Liquidia to support its development efforts.
Liquidia also has retained the right to develop drugs in other therapeutic areas and is exploring possibilities in the oncology, ophthalmology and dermatology fields, Fowler said.
Nor is Liquidia’s technology platform limited to pharmaceuticals. The company also has a partnership with Procter & Gamble focused on consumer products.
Indeed, early on Liquidia focused on ways to exploit its technology for making devices such as solar panels or video screens. But several years ago it decided to make drug-development its top priority.
Now GSK has validated that decision.