Ultimate allergy shot

Innovation: British company boasts of a vaccine with huge potential
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The Independent Online
CLINICAL trials are about to begin on a British-invented vaccine that prevents allergies including hay fever, allergic asthma, and reactions to food, drugs, cats, dogs and bee stings. As allergies are thought to affect about 30 per cent of the wor ld's population, this is potentially one of the biggest-selling drugs ever.

Peptide Therapeutics, the company developing the anti-allergy vaccine, also holds patents on a potential vaccine against rheumatoid arthritis. It has asked Baring Brothers to advise on a planned London flotation later this year.

Peptide Therapeutics was set up in November 1993 by Dr Denis Stanworth, 67, on whose research the vaccines are based, and Advanced Technology Management, a company that specialises in helping biotechnology start-ups. The company has raised £4.5m so far, partly from the Cambridge venture capital group, Prelude Technology Investments. The British Technology Group, which supported Dr Stanworth's work at the Rheumatology and Allergy Research Unit at Birmingham University, has a 12 per cent stake.

Allergies are unwanted reactions of the body's immune system, thought to have evolved as a mechanism for protecting against worms and other parasites. Allergic responses protected our ancestors because they acted against the enzymes in worms and other parasites. They develop when initial exposure to substances such as pollen, cat hairs or house dust (allergens) provokes the production of an antibody, Immunoglobulin E (IgE). IgE molecules then bind to the surface of specialised cells, called mast cells, distributed widely in the lungs, skin and gut. The next time the allergen is encountered it locks on to the surface of the IgE molecules. This triggers the release of histamine and other substances from the mast cells, which cause sneezing, s wellings, rashes and runny noses.

Allergies range in severity from minor annoyances to anaphylactic (or whole body) responses that can cause death in minutes. Peanut allergy can be one such extreme case.

Each IgE is specific for the allergen that provoked it, and existing treatment for allergies depends on singling out the allergen and desensitising people by successive exposure to it. But it turns out that IgE molecules have common structural elements. The Peptide Therapeutics vaccine works by generating an antibody, IgG, which acts against the common part of IgE, preventing the allergen from triggering the release of histamine.

Peptide will not be drawn on how much it hopes to raise in the flotation, but a spokesman pointed out that Immulogic, a company in Boston that is developing vaccines specific for cat and dog allergies, recently raised $200m (£127m).

Now that Peptide has reached the stage of clinical trials on the anti-allergy vaccine, it is making alliances with drug companies to push the drug through to the market. The company estimates that the vaccine will be available in the UK in five years.

Peptide has no ambitions to build a fully fledged drug business. It says it will continue to develop drugs to the stage where pharmaceuticals companies will be interested in licensing deals. It expects to employ no more than 100 people.