Europe is getting closer to finding a painless riposte to Moctezuma’s revenge, after two pharmaceutical companies on Friday signed a deal to develop a needle-free vaccination against travellers’ diarrhoea.
GlaxoSmithKline of the UK, one of the world’s largest vaccine producers, has put its weight behind an experimental vaccine that needs no syringe, developed by Intercell of Austria.
The move marks a fresh sign of interest by pharmaceutical companies in vaccines as a way to diversify away from drugs, and a glimmer of broader hope for healthy people who see the theoretical attraction of vaccination but hate the idea of being injected with a syringe.
The product would be the first vaccine against travellers’ diarrhoea and the first to use a patch as an alternative to the widespread and much feared insertion of a metal needle, which can also brings the risk of infection.
Intercell’s pioneering approach lightly scrapes the outer surface of the skin with a material it likens to an Emery board, and then applies a patch containing the vaccine that enters the body over several hours.
The transaction, involving a €34m ($50m) upfront payment by GSK alongside milestones, shared profits and a 5 per cent equity purchase in Intercell for up to €84m, marks confidence by the companies in a launch by 2013.
Jefferies, the specialist investment bank, said in a research note rating the company a “buy”. “We believe Intercell is in a transformational period.”
Intercell has recently launched a late-stage test that will vaccinate 1,800 European travellers to Mexico and Guatemala, designed to allow it to file for regulatory approval if the results are positive.
Successful mid-stage clinical tests in 170 travellers published last year showed a reduction by three quarters of moderate to severe diarrhoea.
The patch requires two applications, one just before travel and another within three weeks, with the new trial testing how long it provides protection.
The deal with GSK also includes joint development of a future generation of pandemic flu vaccines.
Apart from reducing perceived or real pain, some studies suggest patches to apply vaccines just under the skin can strengthen the body’s immune response, reducing the amount of vaccine required or even enhancing safety.
AstraZeneca’s subsidiary MedImmune already has a flu vaccine without a needle that jets up the nose, and patches are sometimes used to administer some drugs to treat existing conditions such as smoking addiction.
Other companies are at early stages of developing alternatives to syringes for preventive vaccines using undetectable microneedles, small pieces of gold inserted via pressure, as well as use of heat and radio frequencies.
Intercell’s appears to be the furthest advanced. The company already has a Japanese enchephalitis vaccine on the market, and is developing others for a range of infectious disease, some in partnership with other large pharmaceutical groups.