Poison ivy vaccine making progress, still years away

Posted on Jul 10 2019 - 11:31pm by Kenneth Niemeyer

After receiving a patent for a preventative vaccine to treat poison ivy was given to them last month, university researchers are one step closer to their final product, something that’s almost 30 years in the making.

The New York Times reported in 1992 that Mahmoud ElSohly, a UM professor of pharmaceutics, and E. Sue Watson had isolated the variants of urushiol oil, the rash-causing chemical in poison ivy.

Urushiol oil is the compound in poison ivy, oak and sumac that causes contact dermatitis in those who are allergic to the plants. As little as one microgram — one millionth of a gram — of urushiol can cause a reaction in a highly sensitive person.

ElSohly is also the president and laboratory director of ElSohly Laboratories Inc. and an advisor at Hapten Sciences, UM’s partner in the development of the vaccine. 

Hapten Sciences has been partnered with the university in the development of the technology for eight years and has conducted several clinical trials, but more trails must be completed for the vaccine to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Hapten first filed an Investigative New Drug application with the FDA in 2015.

“In 2017, Hapten completed a Phase I safety study in healthy subjects and recently initiated a second Phase I study to assess safety and biologic activity in subjects with proven sensitivity to urushiol as measured by patch testing,” said Joseph Gladden, UM Vice Chancellor for Research and Sponsored Programs.

When it’s completed, the vaccine will be an injectable that will prevent the cause of contact dermatitis, the itchy skin condition caused by contact with poison ivy, oak and sumac. 

The technology is a small molecule that counteracts the itching caused by contact with urushiol oil in the plants, Gladden said.

“A variety of over-the-counter and home remedies are used to treat symptoms of contact dermatitis, but prescription topical and systemic corticosteroids are considered the best option to reduce inflammation and itching from the urushiol,” Gladden said.  “Our goal is to prevent that reaction in the first place.”

Though Hapten Sciences has made progress recently, the vaccine will likely not be released to the public in the near future. 

“That’s the question of the day, I mean we’ve made great progress so far,” said Allyson Best, UM Director of Technology Management. “It’s hard to put an estimate on it, but we know we’re probably over halfway there.”

The university is poised for financial gain when the vaccine is released. The proceeds from the sale of the product will be distributed between the university, Hapten Sciences and the inventors. 

“I can’t disclose the financial terms that we have with the company right now until it’s on the market, but we will receive a portion of the proceeds, and then a portion of UM’s proceeds are returned to the inventors and the inventor’s department,” Best said.

The product needs to go through more clinical trials before an estimate can be made about its value.

“We won’t know the value of the product until the clinical work is over but we hope this will serve as an important product for the highly sensitive that need relief,” Gladden said.

Being the most common allergic reactions in the United States, poison ivy reactions affect 85% of the population, with 10%-15% being extremely allergic, according to the American Skin Association.

“Ultimately we’re here to ensure that university research makes a difference out in the world and so this one is going to make a difference by hopefully providing relief for those that are highly sensitive to the plant,” Best said.