October 27, 2015 / 6:15 PM / 3 years ago

Biotech companies chase elusive peanut allergy treatment

(Reuters) - A few months ago, Jenessa Torres watched her son erupt in hives after he licked a piece of nutty chocolate. She hadn’t known that her 3-year-old was one of the million American children allergic to peanuts.

Torres now reads menus and food labels with meticulous care. She carries an emergency anti-allergy shot wherever she goes.

The growing prevalence of such allergies in the developed world represents a billion-dollar opportunity for two companies vying to develop the first safe treatment to protect known sufferers. Analysts say it could be available as early as 2018.

“I’d definitely try it,” said Torres, 31, a medical billing clerk in Manhattan.

A growing market has rekindled interest that faded after at least one death during trials years ago in Britain. Currently, there is no approved treatment for peanut allergy in the U.S. market.

Leading the pack today are French company DBV Technologies SA and Brisbane, California-based Aimmune Therapeutics Inc.

DBV, which is developing a skin patch called Viaskin for children, is poised to begin late-stage studies in the current quarter. Aimmune is testing an oral tablet on people aged four to 21 and late-stage studies are expected to start in 2016.

Others, such as privately owned Immunomic Therapeutics and HAL Allergy Group, are in the early stages of developing such drugs.

Credit Suisse analyst Vamil Diwan said Aimmune’s drug, AR101, could have peak annual U.S. sales of $1.33 billion. Morgan Stanley and Jefferies analysts say Viaskin has potential for peak sales of more than $2 billion.

Analysts estimate a year’s supply of Viaskin at about $6,500 and of Aimmune’s treatment at $5,500. The companies declined to comment on price.

To be sure, it might be difficult to persuade mild allergy sufferers to spend money on a new drug, meaning the market could be restricted to those who suffer most acutely.

But this could still be a big number. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network estimates that allergies to food, usually peanuts, are responsible for 150-200 deaths and more than 125,000 emergency room visits every year in the United States.

“If your perfectly healthy child can be exposed to a violent reaction just because of consuming one-thousandth of a peanut, that is a very poor quality of life,” DBV’s Chief Operating Officer David Schilansky said.

‘FIRST-WORLD PROBLEM’

The number of children in the United States afflicted by peanut allergies more than tripled between 1997 and 2008, according to a study funded by Food Allergy Research & Education, a non-profit organization.

Some doctors call it a “first-world problem”.

“In developed countries, we’re almost too clean,” said Dr Purvi Parikh, immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network. “People don’t have exposure to good bacteria, which helps the immune system develop.”

Allergy treatments expose a patient to tiny amounts of peanut protein that, over time, desensitize the user.

The technique has worked on other allergies: Merck & Co Inc and Denmark’s ALK-Abello A/S sell a pollen allergy tablet in the United States and are testing a similar product for dust-mite allergies.

“The science behind the treatment has been known for about 100 years,” said Aimmune Chief Executive Stephen Dilly. “This is about making it safe and accessible for people to use.”

The tablet works quicker than the patch, showing results within six months. The 20-week ‘desensitization period’ involves a gradual increase in dosage.

It does, however, have some gastrointestinal side-effects that were enough to lead six volunteers to drop out of a mid-stage trial.

DBV’s patch exposes patients indirectly to extremely small doses of the allergen. This cuts the risk of severe side-effects - though skin reactions have occurred - but it also takes longer to show results.

The treatment works better after two years than one, recent data reported by DBV showed.

Reporting by Amrutha Penumudi in Bengaluru; Editing by Robin Paxton

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