TOKYO -- Drugmakers look to apply advanced technologies used to treat cancer and other diseases toward combating seasonal allergies, a market segment set to skyrocket as climate change expands the range of affected populations worldwide.
Japanese midtier player Torii Pharmaceutical rolled out a treatment last year designed to block the immune response that triggers symptoms. The therapy, marketed as Cedarcure, reduces hypersensitivity in the immune system by administering allergens in controlled doses. Considered safe for children, the drug is to be taken for three to five years to prevent any remission for a long period.
The Tokyo-based company's sales of Cedarcure topped 400 million yen ($3.6 million) in just half a year since the treatment's release last June. Torii aims to lift sales by nearly sevenfold to 2.7 billion yen this year.
Swiss drugmaker Novartis aims to debut the world's first antibody-based treatment for seasonal allergies in Japan as early as autumn. Novartis targets pollen allergies with the antibody technology used in cancer drug Opdivo and remedies for the autoimmune disorder rheumatoid arthritis. The treatment is intended to prevent allergic reactions by inhibiting the immune response that causes them.
Clinical trials in Japan showed that the Novartis drug significantly reduces nose and eye symptoms when combined with conventional therapies like antihistamines. The company has filed for approval with Japan's health ministry, hoping to begin clinical use for patients with severe symptoms in the fall.
French drugmaker Sanofi is conducting clinical trials for an antibody-based treatment of seasonal allergic rhinitis. Dutch company HAL Allergy and others are developing injectable versions of Torii's Cedarcure.
An estimated 20 million people in Japan are affected by pollen allergies from plants such as cedar and cypress. Conventional remedies like antihistamines have limited effect, leaving many people to suffer symptoms like sneezing and a runny nose. The number of patients who went to a hospital for the condition jumped about 50% between 1996 and 2014.
The Japanese market for pollen allergy remedies is estimated at more than 200 billion yen, or $1.8 billion. The global market for treating rhinitis or nasal congestion caused by allergies reaches $15 billion, according to Indian company Market Research Future.
The market appears likely to grow. Europe's airborne ragweed pollen count has climbed since 1986, with the number of patients expected to hit 77 million by 2060 from 34 million currently. And in the U.S., where nearly 300 related clinical trials are ongoing, a University of Washington research paper predicts that ragweed habitats will increase sharply by the 2050s due to temperature and precipitation changes.
The macroeconomic impact also is heavy. High pollen counts resulting from last year's unusually hot summer could depress Japan's real consumer spending by 569.1 billion yen in January-March 2019, the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute has said.
But with many allergic reactions still unexplained, drug development in this field is no smooth sailing. Japan's Astellas Pharma gave up on developing a pollen allergy vaccination.
High costs tied to the latest technologies also present a hurdle to developing treatments, amid pressure in many parts of the world to lower drug prices. Companies also must consider how much money to devote toward treatments for non-life-threatening allergies.