The ‘arrangement’ as the firms term it will split control of Medicago 60:40 between Mitsubishi and cigarette maker Philip Morris, which has backed the Canadian biotech for almost ten years through a number of investments and licensing agreements.
Medicago’s core production technology is the Proficia expression system that uses strains of the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens to introduce DNA plasmids encoding the protein sequence of interest into the plant Nicotiana benthamiana.
In contrast with viral vector-based systems Proficia does not require an infection process nor is any DNA inserted into the plant genome, which significantly reduces the amount of processing and purification stems when the protein is harvested from the plant's leaves.
Medicago uses the technology to produce what it calls virus-like particles (VLPs). These are vaccines made up of a hollows shell studded with short proteins that can be modified to enable the particle to elicit an immune response to any viral disease.
The potential of the VLP approach has been recognised by both Mitsubishi and the US Department of Defense, which gave Medicago $21m grant to build a manufacturing plant in RTP, North Carolina as part of its pandemic preparedness programme.
Biosimilar production? Give peas a chance
The second technology MTPC will buy with Medicago is less suited to the high-speed production of vaccines and instead is designed for another key growth area for the biopharmaceutical sector, biosimilars.
Medicago’s second production system uses genetically modified strains of the plant alfalfa to produce recombinant proteins in large volumes.
On its website the firm says that: “While this technology is not suited for the production of vaccines, we believe it may have applications in other fields of interest such as the production of biosimilars.”
MTPC has moved away from small molecule drug production in recent years - in May last year it handed fine chemical and API production to a subsidiary – and has started focusing on biopharmaceuticals through agreements with firms like Fujifilm.
In Asia the firm has also been responsible for selling Remicade – one of the world’s most successful biopharmaceutical products and a huge target for biosimilars developers – for many years under an agreement with Janssen Biotech.