The world's biggest drugmaker Pfizer has gone shopping in the UK in its bid to become a major player in the vaccine market and has acquired the privately-held Oxford-based firm PowderMed for an undisclosed sum.

PowderMed specialises in DNA-based vaccines and was spun out of PowderJect in 2003 when the latter was bought by Chiron (now part of Novartis). It has developed its Particle Mediated Epidermal Delivery (PMED) technology, a needle-free system that delivers DNA-coated microscopic gold particles into the skin using pressurised helium gas and the company claims that vaccines based on PMED have been shown to elicit both antibody and cell-mediated immune responses, which could lead to improved efficacy compared to traditional vaccines.

Explaining the rationale behind the acquisition, Pfizer chief executive

Jeffrey Kindler said it "is a strategic opportunity to enter the vaccine

market" and "PowderMed is on the leading edge of advances in vaccine technology."

The New York behemoth¹s vice chairman, David Shedlarz, claimed that the deal is "an example of the fresh approach Pfizer is taking to business development," and with PowderMed¹s technology and early-stage vaccine candidates, "we are adding high-potential, externally-sourced product candidates and technologies to our R&D portfolio."

Specifically, Pfizer claimed that PowderMed's approach can "overhaul a

vaccine manufacturing system that has remained largely unchanged for thelast 50 years." For example, the latter produces flu vaccine inside chicken eggs, "a time-consuming process that takes up to nine months" and results in both limited manufacturing capacity and a limited ability to quickly adapt vaccines to emerging strains of flu.

PowderMed's vaccines are being developed in formulations that are stable at room temperature, "potentially eliminating the need for cold storage of vaccines."

Pfizer acknowledges that the research is at an early stage, but John

LaMattina, president of Pfizer Global R&D argues that "DNA-based vaccines may be the next major innovation against the threat of influenza and other chronic viral diseases."

In terms of pipeline, PowderMed's most advanced candidate is entering Phase II studies for seasonal flu and it also has vaccines in Phase I for herpes, chronic hepatitis B and a preclinical project in genital warts.

PowderMed, whose venture capital backers include SV Life Sciences, Advent Venture Partners, Abingworth Management and Oxford Bioscience Partners, is understandably joyous about the deal and its chief executive and founder Clive Dix said: "I am delighted that the potential of the PowderMed technology to revolutionise the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases is now in the hands of the world¹s leading pharmaceutical company."

The deal is somewhat unusual for Pfizer, given that it rarely invests in

such early-stage projects, and certainly not in vaccines, but the attraction of potentially being at the forefront of developing a new approach to immunisation has proved very strong.