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Peanut allergy vaccine takes big step forward with first human tests

·3 min read
Peanuts - Iain Withers
Peanuts - Iain Withers

The world is one step closer to a vaccine against peanut allergy after UK biotech Allergy Therapeutics announced plans to test its jab in human clinical trials.

The company, which was spun out Glaxo, the precursor to GSK, in 1999, has been testing the treatment in mice, with promising results.

“We made all the mice allergic to peanuts and separated them into two groups,” Manuel Llobet, chief executive, explained. “In the placebo group unfortunately for the mice they all had severe anaphylaxis and just slumped and some died. But the treated ones were just playing, running around on their exercise wheels, totally happy.”

The result was so pivotal that it was published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the top medical journal in the field. When the trials begin, they will be the first of their kind in the world.

“There is absolutely nothing like this,” Mr Llobet said. “It is going to be revolutionary if we can replicate this in humans.”

Peanuts in shells
Peanuts in shells

The vaccine works by hiding the peanut allergen in a harmless synthesised virus derived from a cucumber. The protein from the peanut is bound to the virus so that the immune system doesn’t see it and go into overdrive and trigger an allergic reaction.

Instead, the virus elicits a different response from the immune system that generates various helpful cells, including important memory cells, which identify the peanut protein but without the overblown immune response.

“That means the next time the body is exposed to the peanut it identifies it and realises it is nothing dangerous and can be ignored, rather than going into shock,” Mr Llobet said.

The earliest the jab could be on the market is in four to five years’ time as it has to go through a series of clinical trials. If approved it would be the first treatment of its kind on the market, offering relief for thousands of people around the world for whom peanuts are a deadly threat.

“Patients are so desperate because these attacks can be fatal, imagine the constant paranoia they live in, and we are so excited that we could alleviate this, on top of making a lot of money, which would be nice too,” he added.

Allergy Therapeutics has three major shareholders and is by definition an illiquid stock. It has an unusual history in that it was spun out of Glaxo in the late 1990s through a management buyout and in 2004 was floated on the Aim market.

In 2006 it needed more money and decided to raise debt, rather than to dilute the shares through a placing. The timing was bad because the financial crisis hit, the share price sank and so did the market value of the company, making its debt suddenly enormous in relation to its size.

It looked for an investor that would offer financial backing and found a pharmaceutical company called CFR, which Mr Llobet was working for at the time. He became chief executive of Allergy Therapeutics in 2009.

The company was turned around and its debt structured. Four years later CFR was acquired by Abbott Laboratories, which explains why Abbott now owns 38pc of the shares. There are two other major shareholders: Southern Fox, a South American family investment fund, which has a 22pc stake, and Hong Kong fund ZQ Capital.

The latter invested in Allergy Therapeutics after the debacle with Neil Woodford’s funds sparked panic over illiquid listed companies and meant their shares could be bought at bargain prices.