Speedy BSE test pushes up Proteus shares

Shares in the biotechnology sector sparked into life yesterday on a string of announcements from some of its smaller constituents. Proteus International's shares leapt 17p to 57.5p after it announced its Irish research partner had successfully developed a speedier test for BSE.

Shield Diagnostics' share price was also strong, rising 80p to 416.5p, after it revealed a research tie-up with Abbott Laboratories, the US pharmaceuticals group. However, investors reacted negatively to news that plans by Phytopharm to develop a plant-based cure for eczema would be delayed by around two years. The shares fell 23p to 185.5p.

Proteus said Enfer Scientific, an Irish licensee, had produced a high- throughput test for BSE based on a reagent produced by the British firm which had been validated by the Irish Department of Agriculture. David Gration, chairman, said the department's agricultural veterinary research laboratory was "happy to validate that this test does successfully discriminate between positive and negative BSE carcasses".

The post mortem test was capable of processing 1,000 samples at a time and could be used in slaughterhouses, he said. Proteus went through a bad patch last year after raising pounds 9.5m in a rights issue and seeing then chief executive, Jurek Sikorski, resign soon after.

But Mr Gration said Proteus had signed a deal with Enfer which would net Proteus 12.5 per cent of any revenues earned from the test, which analysts believe could give the company income running into seven figures.

Shield, meanwhile, said it had signed an exploratory research agreement with the diagnostics division of Abbott Laboratories. This would give it access to Abbott's instruments, reagents and training in developing new hospital diagnostic tests, the company said.

The problems of Phytopharm, whose technology is based on Chinese herbal remedies, concern its Zemaphyte drug for severe atopic eczema, a skin complaint. UK approval for the product, currently in phase three trials with 150 patients, will be delayed for around 18 months after US tests begin in September, according to Richard Dixey, chief executive.

This was due to concerns expressed by the British Medicines Control Agency.

But Mr Dixey played down the delays, saying they wouldhelp improve the chances for the drug, given that regulators on both sides of the Atlantic were now in closer liaison and the company had a clearer target to aim for.

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