BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - Pfizer Inc. made a strategic advance into vaccines, acquiring DNA vaccines specialist PowderMed Ltd. The value of the deal, which includes a needle-free delivery system and a portfolio of products, was not disclosed.

PowderMed's lead product against seasonal flu has just entered a Phase I/IIa challenge trial in London and a U.S. Phase I trial, and is in line to become the first DNA vaccine to reach the market.

"Pfizer has been thinking about getting into vaccines. Buying [PowderMed] is a sign they will go into the field and revolutionize it," Clive Dix, PowderMed's CEO, told BioWorld International. "This is the start of a campaign to build a vaccines franchise with 21st Century technology."

Dix added that the move is a significant boost for the whole field of DNA vaccines. "Once one product gets to market the floodgates will open, because the R&D programs and manufacturing are so much simpler than for existing products," he said. "Now the technology is in the hands of someone with the resources to make that happen."

Pfizer said buying PowderMed provided it with an opportunity "to leapfrog decades old egg-based vaccine technology." The acquisition is evidence also of Pfizer taking a fresh approach to expanding its pipeline by in-licensing less advanced products, said David Shedlatz, vice chairman of New York-based Pfizer. "With PowderMed's novel DNA technology and its portfolio of early stage vaccines candidates, we are adding high-potential, externally sourced product candidates to our research and development portfolio."

PowderMed raised £20 million when it was spun out of Chiron Corp. in May 2004, to commercialize needle-free powder injection technology originally developed by PowderJect Pharmaceuticals plc, a spinout from Oxford University.

The investors include Schroder Ventures Life Sciences, Oxford Bioscience Partners, Abingworth Management and Advent Venture Partners.

At the time of the management buyout, the lead candidate was a lung cancer vaccine, partnered with the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, but since then the company has focused on developing vaccines for infectious diseases, including chronic viral diseases. It has an HIV/AIDS vaccine in Phase I that is partnered with GlaxoSmithKline plc, of London; two Phase I products against herpes simplex virus and hepatitis B; and a preclinical-stage genital warts program.

The hepatitis B and genital warts programs were in-licensed from GlaxoSmithKline, and GSK has rights to use PowderJect's delivery technology in oncology products. Dix said the relationship with GSK will continue after the acquisition by Pfizer.

A Pfizer spokesman told BioWorld International the company is interested in advancing PowderMed's oncology portfolio.

PowderMed's particle-mediated epidermal delivery technology uses pressurized helium to deliver microscopic gold particles coated in DNA directly to antigen-presenting cells in the epidermis. Once inside the APCs, the DNA become transcriptionally active, producing the encoded proteins, which then are presented by the APCs to lymphocytes, initiating a T-cell mediated immune response.

Apart from the immunological advantages of that route of delivery, the gold particle formulations are stable at room temperature, making them easy to store, and the needle-free device opens up the possibility of self-administration. The delivery device can be used to deliver conventional vaccines and other drugs in a powdered format, also.

On PowderMed's existing schedule the flu virus is due to reach the market in 2011. The change of ownership is unlikely to result in an acceleration of that program, Dix said. "But we do not have the means to advance some of the other programs as fast as we could, and they could be speeded up."

The Pfizer spokesman said that for the foreseeable future, the PowderMed business and its 40 staff would remain at its current facility in Oxford, UK.

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