PhotoOne of the hazards of outdoor living in the spring and summer is poison ivy, a harmless-looking green plant that can cause intense itching just by making contact with the skin. But now there may be hope for those who are especially allergic to the plant.

Scientists at the University of Mississippi, working with ElSohly Laboratories, have developed a compound they say will prevent reactions to poison ivy, oak and sumac. The compound has been licensed to Hapten Sciences Inc. of Memphis, Tenn.

The product, currently called HPT-721, is being developed for the prevention of contact dermatitis secondary to poison ivy, oak and sumac. The molecule contains chemical derivatives of the oily substance in the plants that causes the itchy rash.

New solution to the problem

"Our HPT-721 molecule provides a completely new solution to the problem of urushiol exposure," said Raymond J. Hage Jr., president and CEO of Hapten. "We are enthusiastic about the significant potential health benefits of this product candidate."

The researchers say the compound will be administered by injection, much like a flu shot. Next development steps include final formulation analysis, completion of manufacturing processes and toxicology studies. Hapten plans to file an Investigational New Drug Application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and begin clinical trials in 2012.

Hypersensitivity to poison ivy develops with repeated exposure to the plants, said Mohammad Ashfaq, a member of the research team that worked on the new compound. "The first time people are exposed, there is no reaction. The second time they are exposed, they get the flared reaction typical of poison ivy dermatitis – the redness and blistering."

Irksome rash

Each year, nearly 50 million Americans develop that irksome skin rash, resulting in more than 7 million visits to health care providers.

Assuming HPT-721 clears the FDA approval process, it will likely be available with a doctor's prescription. Patients would receive an annual shot at the beginning of outdoor season.

In the meantime, make sure you are able to spot poison ivy, poison oak and sumac before you head out into the woods this spring and summer. Also, learn how to treat these rashes when you get them. The U.S. National Library of Medicine provides a helpful resource.

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