US drug heavyweight Pfizer is pushing through into the increasingly profitable vaccine market with the purchase of privately held UK firm PowderMed for an undisclosed sum.
Pfizer said the acquisition is part of "fresh approach" it is taking to business development, involving the external sourcing of products and technologies that it sees as having a high potential.
The formerly low-growth and low-margin vaccines business has been attracting the attention of more and more large drug makers of late, who are seeing a profitable opportunity in this blossoming market, with global sales predicted to grow from $8bn (€6.3bn) this year to $18bn by 2010.
Demand has surged for vaccines and for new ways to make them in recent months, particularly fuelled by concerns over a recent shortage of flu vaccines in the United States and the looming threat of a potential bird flu epidemic.
British firm PowderMed is developing needle-free vaccines for the flu as well as chronic viral diseases, which use compressed helium gas to deliver the immunisation to the patient.
The vaccine is delivered with the company's Particle Medicated Epidermal Delivery (PMED) injection system, which delivers viral DNA to the epidermal layer of the skin where it enters the cells of the immune network, creating immunity and facilitating both treatment and prevention of disease.
"This delivery method could therefore lead to improvement improved efficacy compared to traditional vaccines," said the firm.
According to PowderMed, the PMED system is "uniquely and easily adaptable to treat avian flu".
In addition, the company believes its vaccine would be ideal to address the pandemic threat because it can be self-administered and requires no refrigeration for stockpiling - particularly beneficial to epidemic-prone regions.
Furthermore, in terms of production, typical flu vaccines are grown in chicken eggs, a technique developed more than 50 years ago and that can take up to nine months to process.
In contrast, vaccines with a DNA-based approach can be manufactured very rapidly and in large quantities, while yielding an efficacious immune response at low doses, and therefore have the potential to beat both egg-based vaccine technology and the cell-based vaccine technology currently being developed, said PowderMed.
According to the two firms, new DNA technologies, such as those involved in the PowderMed shot, might allow companies to produce vaccine against new strains of flu more quickly and therefore, could be the answer as they represent powerful tools for an innovative vaccine design process known as "genetic immunisation."
"There is a critical public health need for new, more effective vaccines to prevent and treat infectious diseases," said Jeffrey Kindler, Pfizer CEO.
In an average year in the US, for example, seasonal influenza causes more than 200,000 hospitalisations and kills approximately 36,000 people, primarily in the over-65 population.
PowderMed has DNA-based influenza vaccines in clinical development for prevention of both seasonal and avian flu. The most advanced candidate is entering Phase II clinical studies for seasonal flu.
The firm's vaccine technology is also being studied for use in hepatitis B and herpes vaccines, which are in Phase I development.
After the acquisition, expected to close during the fourth quarter of the year, Pfizer may be able to give this technology the push it needs to take off.