Aquilon Pharma joins the Biopark

March 27th 2019

The Biopark is now home to a local branch of Aquilon Pharma, an ULiège spin-off improving the efficacy of inhaled drugs, starting with existing treatments for asthma and COPD.

A few years ago, Professors Brigitte Evrard and Didier Cataldo, researchers at ULiège, discovered that a certain excipient may have a positive effect on asthma. Unfortunately, a huge—likely toxic—dose of the compound would need to be delivered for it to have an effect. But would it be possible to combine this excipient with existing active ingredients, to increase their efficacy? ‘That is our working hypothesis,’ says Paul Maes, CEO of Aquilon Pharma. ‘At the molecular level, this excipient is shaped like a doughnut. When an active ingredient comes in contact with the excipient, it nestles inside the “doughnut”. The resulting complex becomes soluble, which increases exchanges with inflamed pulmonary cells and, therefore, boosts the treatment’s efficacy.’

Clinical trials starting soon

Researchers were able to improve the efficacy of several molecules used to treat asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), by a factor of 2.5 to 10. After making these discoveries in 2013, they launched their spin-off and have since applied for eight international patents. More recently, at the end of 2018, Aquilon Pharma raised 6.6 million euros ‘These funds will help us start phase I/IIa clinical trials in September,’ explains Paul Maes. ‘We will first test a treatment for asthma, which combines our excipient and a corticosteroid. Then, we will study a beta agonist(1) bronchodilator used to tread COPD. In animals, our complex has helped us increase the effectiveness of the bronchodilator with lower doses.’

A foot in Charleroi

In December 2018, Aquilon Pharma opened a branch in the Biopark. This could enable the spin-off to reach out beyond its initial portfolio of ‘value-added medicines’ and develop partnerships with firms looking to optimise their drugs or other medical mechanisms. ‘We are now working on our commercial development,’ comments Paul Maes. ‘At the moment, our business developers are the ones who are spending the most time in Gosselies. Some of it has to do with being near an airport, not far from Brussels, and surrounded by various economic players, but it’s also about being present in the Biopark. We are coming here to find the skills and expertise that are not necessarily available in Liège. The Biopark is also an ecosystem and a rich talent pool, from which we hope to recruit the profiles we will soon need.’ In the medium term, Aquilon Pharma plans to install its first pilot manufacturing plant in Gosselies.

(1) A beta-2 agonist is a chemical agent that acts upon beta receptors.