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Drug Delivery

Philip Morris pushes into drug delivery

The buys are part of the tobacco company’s expansion beyond nicotine

by Megha Satyanarayana
July 14, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 26


An image of several drug inhalation devices.
Credit: Vectura Group
Philip Morris International is moving into drug delivery, buying Vectura Group, which makes inhalers such as these.

Philip Morris International (PMI), the maker of the iconic Marlboro cigarette outside the US, is bolstering its foray into drug delivery with two high-profile deals.

The tobacco company has agreed to buy Fertin Pharma and its oral drug delivery technologies for about $820 million. It is also buying Vectura Group and its inhaled drug delivery technologies for about $1.2 billion.

The purchases are part of PMI’s effort to diversify as cigarette use continues to decline worldwide. PMI says drug delivery technologies from Fertin and Vectura complement its own expertise in inhalation and aerosolization. Overall, PMI has a goal of generating at least $1 billion in sales by 2025 from what it calls “beyond nicotine” products.

Although some people might find a tobacco company’s foray into drug delivery for health purposes disingenuous, PMI’s acquisitions are not surprising, says Anthony Hickey, an inhaled drug delivery expert at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute. Both companies being purchased are large, bringing several products with them, not to mention dozens of scientific experts.

“Clearly, a tobacco company knows an awful lot about lungs and the behavior of aerosols in lungs. At some level, I would think this is an admirable use of resources that they have available to them,” Hickey says.

One of Fertin’s flagship products is Zapliq, a tablet that turns into liquid when chewed and can be customized to different small molecules, including cannabinoids and pain treatments. The company also makes gums and powders that can be used in orally dissolvable pouches.

Vectura has dozens of inhaled and noninhaled health care products on the market through partnerships with other drug companies. In acquiring Vectura, PMI bested a competing bid by the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.

Developing drugs for inhalation come with challenges, Hickey says. Chemical modifications may need to be made to a therapeutic to make it more available in the lungs. And the regulatory timeline can be long because both the device and the drug, especially if it has been developed from scratch, have to be approved.

And while PMI has not indicated any disease it is working on, Hickey says several lung-specific diseases could use the attention, such as cystic fibrosis; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); infectious diseases that do their worst damage in the lungs, like tuberculosis; and of course, COVID-19.

“There is opportunity there,” he says, noting the irony that a cigarette company might develop a treatment for COPD, one of the main diseases that arises from smoking.



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