Tekmira changes its name and shuffles away from Ebola

Tekmira CEO Mark Murray

Tekmira Pharmaceuticals ($TKMR) is shifting focus after years of up-and-down development, planning to change its name and train its attention on hepatitis B.

The Canadian biotech will do business as Arbutus Biopharma come Aug. 6, a name change the company says will reflect the integration of OnCore BioPharma, which it acquired in January. Buying OnCore, a venture founded by veterans of Pharmasset, Tekmira got its hands on a pipeline of potential cures for hepatitis B, and the company now plans to build its future around those candidates and its own preclinical treatment for the virus.

That refocus means pivoting away from Ebola, Tekmira said, putting on hold a program that has propelled the biotech's share value to peaks and valleys over the past year. Management has indefinitely suspended development of TKM-Ebola, a treatment plagued by clinical setbacks, and plans to re-evaluate its partnership with the Department of Defense, which had provided funding for the project. In the long term, Tekmira plans to evaluate strategic alternatives for the once-promising therapy, including selling it off outright.

Instead, the future Arbutus will place its bets on hepatitis B, with plans to get four treatments for the virus into clinical trials by the first half of next year. Leading the way is TKM-PLK1, a drug first conceived as a cancer therapy that Tekmira now believes could become a promising antiviral agent. Behind that are treatments designed to halt viral replication, spur an immune response against hepatitis B and attack the virus' DNA, the company said.

The transition follows years of quixotic R&D focused on RNAi therapeutics that generated little in the way of clinical success. Moving away from those projects, the new company plans to take a page from Pharmasset--which invented the now-blockbuster sofosbuvir for hepatitis C before getting acquired by Gilead Sciences ($GILD) for $11 billion--and go all in on antivirals.

"The company possesses exceptionally strong and proven clinical development, scientific and commercial leadership teams and is very well resourced to execute against our goal of delivering a cure for chronic HBV," Tekmira CEO Mark Murray said. "We believe that the market opportunity for a curative regimen for HBV is very significant, likely eclipsing the HCV market, and presents a meaningful opportunity for shareholders."

Once the transition is complete, Murray will retain the CEO role, joined by OnCore co-founder Patrick Higgins as chief business officer, Pharmasset vet Michael Sofia as chief scientific officer and Tekmira's Mark Kowalski retaining his position as chief medical officer.

- read the statement