LONDON - Start-up Circassia Ltd. has secured #245,500 (US$367,500) in seed funding to develop treatments for asthma and related disorder based on research from Imperial College in London.

Circassia, based at the National Heart and Lung Institute of the Imperial College School of Medicine, initially will focus on asthma and allergies caused by cats. Its core technology, Peptide Allergen Desensitization (PAD) exploits the observation that, in order to be effectively presented to the immune system, desensitizing peptides must be appropriately bound to the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). In addition to identifying T-cell specific epitopes of allergens, the company has a system for screening for peptides that bind to MHC.

Philip Ledger, commercial manager, told BioWorld International, "Previous approaches to allergy desensitization, looking for consensus peptides suitable for all sufferers, have not been successful. We have found a way to design smaller peptides for their ability to be bound and presented by different MHC backgrounds."

The company is based on research by Barry Kay and Mark Lache.

The seed money has come from the Challenge Seed Fund, set up by the UK government and the research charity, the Wellcome Trust, to start-up companies that are not sufficiently developed to raise venture funding.

The company will use the seed funding to recruit research staff and further develop its technology. It expects to seek its first-round funding toward the end of this year, and will be looking to raise around #5 million.

A prototype cat asthma vaccine, Cat-PAD, is in a Phase II double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Ledger said, "The results are due by the fourth quarter of this year. We intend to continue with further Phase II trials ourselves, but like all small biotechs, we are also looking for partners."

Cats are a major cause of asthma and other allergies, and it is estimated that 10 percent to 30 percent of allergic asthma is triggered by cats. Ledger said there is evidence that if the allergy is treated early enough, it is possible to prevent progression to chronic asthma.

The technique for screening allergens to find peptides that bind to MHC can be applied to any allergen, and is also relevant to autoimmune diseases. Circassia has agreed to a licensing deal with the veterinary compan, Heska Corp., which specializes in treatments for pets. Circassia has been granted an exclusive worldwide license to elements of Heska's cat allergen portfolio. It also has options on other Heska allergens, including ryegrass, dog, ragweed and house dust mite.

"Heska has an enormous portfolio of intellectual property covering sequences of numerous allergens that cause allergic disease in companion animals. Many of these also cause allergies in humans," Ledger said. Heska has taken an equity interest in Circassia in return for the license.

Circassia has started work on finding MHC-binding peptides in ryegrass and house dust mite allergens.

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