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Of Mice And Men: DAL Research Institute Attracts Us Bioscience Firm

Mice would drive away most potential tenants, but not these ones.

If anything, it was the mice that helped convince the founders of Agada Biosciences Corp. to make Halifax their home.

Agada, which was founded last June by United States researchers, does pre-clinical drug efficacy tests for pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and patient groups and foundations related to neuromuscular disorders.

In September, the business moved into the Innovacorp Enterprise Centre, where it rents office space and a wet lab and has access to business experts.

But the real cheese was the new mouse lab at Dalhousie University’s Life Sciences Research Institute.

“The key element was really well-run, nice mouse facilities, and that’s a complicated thing to run,” said Eric Hoffman, vice-president of Agada and a leading U.S. genetics researcher who discovered the cause of Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Company president Dr. Kanneboyina Nagaraju, an immunologist and veterinarian, is “certainly familiar with mouse facilities,” Hoffman said.

“But it would be a huge leap for us to build and run our own mouse facility.”

It would have been a costly venture in terms of time and money to set up, and the co-founders wanted to focus more on getting the business running. They looked at a number of facilities throughout the U.S. but none compared to the potential they saw in the mouse lab, which hadn’t yet been built, at the Halifax site.

“There was some risk,” Hoffman said.

“We were under a very tight time frame with contracts already coming in before we had started technically because it’s serving pharma and biotechs internationally in drug development programs. Time is money.

“We really needed this up and running as soon as possible.”

Representatives from Dalhousie, Innovacorp and Nova Scotia Business Inc. brought in the co-founders, set up meetings and helped as they set up shop, Hoffman said.

“Instead of putting up roadblocks along the way, it’s ‘How can we facilitate this?’”

Nikki Comeau, spokeswoman for Dalhousie University, said the animal care facility isn’t entirely operational but is expected to be running by this summer.

However, Dalhousie gave Agada early access to the institute, sectioning off a room and making sure it was complete and met regulations so work could start while construction continued, Hoffman said.

The company, which employs six people, already has a couple of clients with about 10 more in the pipeline from all over the world, Hoffman said.

“We project about $1 million in revenue the first year,” he said.

Agada grew out of the pre-clinical drug testing facility at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Nagaraju was the facility’s director and associate director of the hospital’s Center for Genetic Medicine Research, and Hoffman was the centre’s director.

They have conducted more than 60 pre-clinical trials at the centre, but an academic lab can’t keep up with the needs and deadlines of drug companies, Hoffman said.

The centre then evolved into a business.

Hoffman, a co-founder of the drug development company ReveraGen Biopharma with Nagaraju, said it’s a “big emerging market.”

Drug development is expensive. It typically costs about $500 million and takes about 15 years before a drug hits the market, Hoffman said.

Much of the work at Agada focuses on developing what’s known as orphan drugs, needed to help patients with rare illnesses. Orphan drugs have fewer users, but the development costs remain the same so profits go down, Hoffman said.

As science and technology enable researchers to better target the root of illnesses, treatments will become more personalized and costs will need to be cut down so patients can have access to them, Hoffman said.

Being able to contract out pre-clinical testing is more cost-effective for a company and will help get drugs on the market faster and at a lower cost, Hoffman said.

“What we have is the greatest opportunity to do the most effective targeting drugs and help the most people, yet we can’t afford them.

“It creates an almost ethical tragedy, in a way, because all our health-care systems are supposed to promote health. They have all this infrastructure and all this research that’s supposed to go towards that, but if nobody can afford it, what’s the point?”

The company is already moving to a bigger wet lab and expanding into areas related to nerve disease, cardiac disease and lung function. Hoffman said it is also eyeing a move into later-stage clinical testing