Bioengineering can take animal drug manufacturing to the next level.
Jenny Filbey, CEO and co-founder of Mazen Animal Health, was running a pharmaceuticals consulting firm when she met her now-business partner. John Howard had dedicated his entire career to the study of making genetic modifications to corn. Although she didn’t work in animal agriculture, the potential of his technology was immediately apparent to Filbey.
“It became clear to me that a technology that would enable you to put vaccines in animal feed would be of huge interest to the industry,” she said.
The use of biotechnology is nothing new in the animal drug world — antibiotics were among some of the earliest products where scientists realized they could essentially farm microorganisms to produce beneficial compounds, according to J. Casey Lippmeier, senior vice president of innovation at biotechnology firm Conagen. The first generation of antibiotics were chemicals produced naturally by fungi, which used these chemicals to kill bacteria that might otherwise compete for resources.
But the advent of bioengineering stands to take drug manufacturing to the next level. Instead of relying on specific organisms, scientists can now move desirable genes and traits from one microorganism to another. Want to move the gene that makes antibiotics into a microbe that is cheaper to grow? Done. Want to move that same gene in to a plant to make it easier to administer medication to livestock? That’s on the near horizon.
“These are all things that are happening today, in the world right now,” Lippmeier says. “Not just for small molecules like antibiotics, but vitamins, some natural colorings. And there are large macro molecules like proteins that are even more underutilized.”
Cutting production costs
The technology that allows manufacturers to move genes between species has existed for some 40 years now, Lippmeier says, but it’s enjoyed renewed attention in recent years thanks to the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines, which encode directions to cells in chains of molecules, are grown in laboratories using microbes that were specifically engineered to produce them.
To engineer an mRNA vaccine is no simple thing; these are large, complex molecules that are difficult to manufacture, Lippmeier says. But now that the COVID-19 vaccine has entered mainstream medicine, scientists have turned their attention to finding additional applications for their growing bioengineering capabilities.
At Conagen and many other companies, Lippmeier says, this means finding ways to make existing drugs cheaper.
Many of today’s most expensive drugs, including some anti-inflammatory medications, cancer medications and monoclonal antibodies, are made using extremely delicate cells from sources such as Chinese hamster ovaries, Lippmeier says. If you could make the same thing in a less fragile, more abundant cells — like a yeast, for example — you could dramatically reduce the cost of that drug.
This opens all kind of potential for drug manufacturers. In livestock, with its ever-thin margins, the cost of these drugs is the reason why we don’t go out of our way to treat diseases like arthritis, heart disease and even dementia in production animals. But if you could make the drug cheap enough, Lippmeier says, the calculus could change; treating these conditions to extend the life of a sheep or a cow so it can continue to produce wool or milk might increase farm profits.
Conagen isn’t ready to publicly discuss specifics about which drugs they plan to convert from human-only markets to animal uses, but Lippmeier says they have identified more than 40 that they consider high potential. And while most of these drugs will be made available for dogs and cats initially, Lippmeier says the company is seeking partnerships with research farms that are interested in trialing new veterinary drugs.
Encoding drugs in feed
Cost isn’t the only aspect of drug production that stands to benefit from bioengineering. Advances in the works could also make veterinary medicine far easier to administer at scale.
Implanting animal drugs into microorganisms like yeast and then feeding those microbes to animals as a single-cell protein might be the most straightforward approach from a manufacturing perspective. But Filbey, the veterinary health startup CEO, doesn’t believe it’s ultimately the best option. For that, she aims to take bioengineering a step further — implanting animal drugs in corn itself.
“It may seem like a more difficult route, but we’re basically using sunshine to grow our vaccine,” Filbey says. “We are growing a renewable resource, harvesting it, grinding it up, blending it to the right potency and feeding it to the animals. We don’t need large stainless steel vats, clean rooms or chilled rooms for packaging. It really is, in our mind, a far more economical way to produce vaccines.”
Mazen is already nearing the final stages of bringing its first product to market — a vaccine for porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus. Early trials have shown that feeding the genetically engineered corn to pigs increased their ability to survive a PED virus infection beyond that of the conventional injected vaccine, Filbey says. And use of the corn vaccine should not change the animal’s GMO status for marketing purposes, because today’s conventional vaccines are already genetically modified, Filbey says.
If the regulatory approval process proceeds as planned, the corn-based vaccine should be available to producers in 2024.
“Head to head, I think we are quite comparable” with conventional vaccines, Filbey says. “But it’s not really a head to head because of the cost to deliver the vaccine — the labor, the inherent risk of having outside people come through the barn. We will clearly be able to compete on the affordability side of the equation with our vaccines.”
Kent Nutrition Group has monitored Mazen’s progress with the vaccine closely, according to Kale Causemaker, senior director of sales and innovative solutions at Kent. The company is one of several funding Mazen’s research.
“When we saw this technology, we thought this is a tremendous fit,” Causemaker says, “because corn is such a constant fixture in about every diet across all species. We certainly want to see this succeed.”
But PED virus is just the beginning of Mazen’s plans, Filbey says. The company is also in the process of engineering a vaccine for coccidiosis into corn. And research into growing corn that also produces key digestibility enzymes is also in the works.
“That’s for me what is so exciting about this technology,” Filbey says. “It’s not just vaccines, but we have the ability to do any type of protein that is possible with this type of technology.”