Drug-manufacturing facility seen as catalyst for pharma development

· The Pulse

The $80.5 million in federal money going into the Edmonton-based Canadian Critical Drug Initiative will do more than secure a domestic supply of crucial medications and support the commercialization of new drug discoveries, says the head of Applied Pharmaceutical Innovation (API).

The investment is also a big step towards attracting more pharmaceutical companies to the region, which would have a profound effect on the diversification of the economy, API CEO Andrew MacIsaac told Taproot.

"This is going to serve as the catalyst of a lot of growth within the sector," he said, suggesting the goal is not so much a drug manufacturing facility as a signal of Edmonton's competitiveness when it comes to attracting life sciences companies. "And then also we'll have a phenomenal increase in the resources that we have to enable the ones that are growing here to succeed and to scale here."

The March 17 funding announcement is unprecedented in its size, MacIsaac said, but it is also just the beginning of further cementing the advantages the Edmonton region has started to assemble when it comes to attracting more companies on the scale of Gilead Sciences, which set up shop here in 2006.

"Edmonton has the makings of a cluster," MacIsaac said. "We just have too few anchor tenants."

The money will go towards a new 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and an upgrade of the 72,000-square-foot Biotechnology Business Development Centre at the Edmonton Research Park. The $175-million project will eventually have the capacity to produce up to 70 million doses per year, API estimates.

Much of that capacity will be used to produce small-molecule drugs, the vast majority of which are currently produced offshore.

In non-emergency times, the production lines will also be able to produce novel drugs for clinical trials, which could help companies such as Entos Pharmaceuticals or Hepion as well as the researchers at the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, which is partnering with API on the initiative.

That same capacity will be attractive to other drug companies looking for manufacturing facilities, MacIsaac said. In the high-stakes world of patented medicines, where a six-month delay can mean a loss of millions of dollars, having a place where initial production can begin right away significantly lowers the risk of moving to Edmonton.

Six men in suits stand smiling around an architectural rendering of a new drug manufacturing facility

(From left) Researcher Lorne Tyrrell, provincial innovation minister Nate Glubish, federal ministers Randy Boissonnault and Dan Vandal, API CEO Andrew MacIsaac, and Mayor Amarjeet Sohi stand with an architectural rendering of the new drug-manufacturing facility on March 17, 2023. (Applied Pharmaceutical Innovation)

"Rather than a tax break, rather some sort of cash incentive or grant for a company to choose Edmonton as a location, we provide them with an ability to significantly decrease the time that they need to get up and running," he said.

The facility makes it easier to leverage other advantages, such as the talent graduating from the University of Alberta, relatively low setup costs, pharmaceutical logistics, the strength of the public school system, and other quality-of-life measures.

"There's so many boxes that we check that are the big things that are really hard to build," MacIsaac said. "This is the initial start of what will hopefully be years and years of announcements of growth within the sector."

The CCDI has been in the works for years, and it feels good to get on with the next phase, MacIsaac said.

Renovation work is already underway at Biotechnology Business Development Centre to accommodate more life sciences tenants. The equipment for the new building has been ordered, and MacIsaac expects shovels in the ground this fall or next spring, with a targeted completion date of 2026.

Over the next six months, API will work with Alberta Health Services to determine which generic drugs the facility should manufacture. A good candidate would be propofol, a widely used anesthetic that was already seeing shortages before the pandemic, MacIsaac said. The next three years will see continued efforts to build the life sciences ecosystem, which will ensure demand for the facility's production of patented drugs.

That's a pretty full to-do list, but it's necessary to work towards the "city of tomorrow" that MacIsaac has his eye on.

"I really am excited to see that we're going to be a leader in clean energy, in traditional tech and AI, as well as life sciences," he said. "It's that type of diversity that really builds a robust city and a robust region that's thriving."