Vaccines began in the late 18th century, when Edward Jenner developed protection against smallpox using cow pox. He coined the term vaccine from vacca, the Latin for cow.

In the developed world, vaccines are routine, either given during childhood or administered to combat specific risks to patients with weaker immune systems, or those travelling to areas where certain diseases are endemic.

Some vaccines are particularly effective — polio and smallpox have been eliminated in western Europe. Some are less so and the BCG vaccine has proved ineffective against tuberculosis.

Vaccine programmes only succeed if a significant proportion of the population is inoculated.

The scare that the measles, mumps and rubella cocktail MMR might provoke autism, saw both a dramatic fall in the numbers injected, and an equally dramatic rise in cases of measles and mumps. These have led to some deaths and significant complications.

PepTcell, which has its scientific headquarters at the Cherwell Innovation Centre, has a mission to develop vaccines and treatments based on the body’s immune response.

Chief scientific officer Dr Wilson Caparros-Wanderley said: “We were founded in 2004 by two investment bankers, Gregory Stoloff and James Synge.

“They felt that there was a tendency in science to follow received wisdom, not to challenge the status quo. So we’re funded by high net-worth individuals, not venture capital, and that gives us freedom to go our own way.”

Their deliberate policy of challenging dogma has led to novel approaches in a number of areas.

Just about to enter Phase I clinical trials are two vaccines, one for all forms of influenza and one for HIV.

The ‘flu vaccine is prophylactic, aimed at prevention, while that for HIV is therapeutic, aimed at cure.

These diseases present the great difficulty of constant mutation. For example, avian flu is calculated to mutate every 90 days and HIV is known as the master of disguise for its ability to hide from the immune system by changing.

PepTcell’s novel approach was to analyse all known variants of both ailments. They found the variable elements in each were those that excited the greatest immune response by the body.

But significantly, every variant conserved common elements that were recognised by the immune system, but which were at too low a level for the system to respond.

These levels are measured using an international system. A high level would be 90,000, a low level 40,000.

PepTcell’s vaccines boost the common elements from say, 40,000 to 90,000, the immune system responds to fight the complaint and the vaccines cover all variants of a disease.

The HIV vaccine is therapeutic because to develop it as a prophylactic would take ten years or more, and PepTcell wants to bring relief to those diagnosed as HIV but who have yet to develop AIDS.

Four years ago, the company was approached by an Argentinian company to research and develop a vaccine against chagas.

Virtually unknown outside South America, chagas affects millions of people. It is a small parasite that lives in cracks in earth/straw walls attacking the inhabitants, mostly the poor. The initial acute phase moves to the chronic phase, where the cardiac and intestinal cells are attacked and severe damage occurs over 10-15 years.

Only one drug exists to counter the disease, and as Dr Caparros-Wanderley found from talking to Medecins sans Frontieres, they have no test to confirm the drug has done its work.

The diagnostic test can confirm the disease is present but is of no help to confirm its eradication.

Now chagas has spread to North America and Canada, and there is risk of it escalating to Europe. South Americans, unaware they carry chagas, can donate blood and extend the problem.

To label PepTcell as just a vaccine company would be wrong. Its broad-based pipeline encompasses a treatment for chronic cough, just about to enter the market, a one-shot cure for acute respiratory distress syndrome, and breast and prostate cancer treatments.

Research is also being carried out on mosquito-borne diseases, by examining the environment of the body that the parasite targets.

PepTcell began in the founders’ front rooms with three staff. Soon they moved to occupy part of the Diagnox laboratories at Upper Heyford, then graduated to their own labs within the Innovation Centre.

The headcount is now 15, but with outsourcing, manpower is actually around 70. This includes subsidiaries Biocopia and Tangent, which are involved in examining and reprofiling existing drugs to meet new disease targets.

“Our clear plan is to remain a think-tank, a small, flexible company that develops ideas or treatments to Phase II, then sells them on to big pharma for the expensive Phase III trials and marketing,” said Dr Caparros-Wanderley.

“The income will be re-invested in our next ideas. We will always challenge dogma — that’s why we’re here.”

Name: PepTcell Established: 2004 Chief executive: Gregory Stoloff Number of staff: 15 Annual turnover: Confidential

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