Editor’s Note: Recombinetics, the gene editing company operating in agriculture and human therapeutics, is spinning out its agriculture business into a new company called Acceligen. Acceligen will focus on gene editing animals to improve their health — reducing the need for antibiotics in swine, for example — and welfare by reducing the need for certain practices such as castration, also in swine. The company is also using what it describes as advanced breeding practices to produce cattle that can withstand hotter climates.
We caught up with Mitch Abrahemsen, chief commercial and scientific officer, about the Acceligen spin-off ahead of his speaking slot at the Animal AgTech Innovation Summit in San Francisco next month.
What is the background of the founding team?
We are animal geneticists, who were looking for ways to improve animal genomes and it was clear at the time that gene editing was a very effective way to address animal welfare and health traits in agriculture using our expertise in animal genetics and husbandry. We also saw the potential for swine as a model for human disease to help with the creation of human therapeutic products.
You’re currently spinning the animal agriculture business out from Recombinetics. Why?
Acceligen is the agriculture business that’s deploying welfare and heath traits in cattle, swine, and aquaculture. We raised $34 million into Recombinetics in the fall of 2018 to support the parent company in its effort to commercialize each subsidiary. We’re spinning the business units out because it’s hard to get investors interested in both the animal and human applications together; they tend to be interested in one or the other.
What types of investors will you be looking for Acceligen?
Well, on the one hand, we’re a 10-years old business, but on the other hand, it’ll be a newly formed business. I think it might be too mature for some traditional venture capital funds, so we’ll be targeting some strategic investment funds and gathered a great list of potential investors for Acceligen when we were on the road with Recombinetics. The conversation has changed with investors as we’ve moved on from discussing the potential for gene editing to the commercial successes of the technology. We’re now getting more interest from strategic groups that wouldn’t have considered investing in a startup before.
What does Acceligen do?
Our approach is to identify naturally-occurring variations that exist in animal populations today, such as in different breeds or different geographies such as tolerance to heat or a lack of horns. These are variants that already exist in the species, and so we can use gene editing to essentially remove horns in animals that would have otherwise grown them, and also give certain breeds the heat tolerance gene. Horns can be very dangerous and harmful to dairy cattle, whereas some breeds of cattle do not fare well in hotter climates of the southern hemisphere such as Angus cows, which are known for their high-quality meat.
On the dairy side, the elite Holstein cows of the world often have horns, but there are holsteins without them, and so we can edit out that gene for horns. You can probably breed out that trait but typical breeding programs take 20 – 30 years, and no-one is willing to take on that challenge that might also decrease animals productivity at the same time.
We edit the genetics of a cell, then transfer the edited nucleus into an egg that will then grow into an animal as normal and be bred by our genetics partners.
What do you sell exactly?
What we sell are the founder animals (first generation) of the animals with the precision bred (gene-edited) trait. The genetics companies then integrate the genetics from these animals into their already elite genetics.
For example, we’ve partnered with international genetics companies such as Semex to deploy that hornless trait into the dairy industry. We have various business models, but typically we will get a royalty on every semen sold, and the beauty of that is that we’re not becoming a new livestock genetics company; we’re taking advantage of their existing footprints globally to introduce our edited germplasm.
So far you’ve worked with partners on producing the first gene-edited thermotolerant cattle last year, the first gene edited chickens in Europe in 2017, and the first genetically dehorned heifer (female cow) in 2017, with a variety of patents for gene editing large animals in China and Europe. What other animals are you working on?
We are working on editing swine, so that male pigs don’t have to be castrated and go through that welfare concern. They are castrated to avoid aggressive behavior and because the meat quality of immature pigs is better. Europe has also banned the mechanical castration of male pigs so we’re working on developing male swine that won’t go through puberty.
We’re also looking at improving swine health against instances of foot and mouth disease, and the need for antibiotics as consumers increasingly demand antibiotic-free food. We can use our technology to address what the consumer wants.
We’re also working on improving the safety of gene-edited fish in aquaculture; the concern there is that gene edited fish will escape and become an invasive species, mating with wild fish. We’re working on producing sterile and single-sex fish.
Our technology is not about looking for problems to solve; we are creating solutions to clear problems.
Also, we’ve already developed the world’s first gene edited hornless (polled) Holsteins bulls in 2016; the first gene edited birds in Europe in 2017; the first gene edited hornless (polled) Holstein cow in 2018; and the first Angus cow gene-edited for heat tolerance.
Europe is a tricky market right now with its decision to regulate gene edited goods as GMO. What does that mean for that side of the business?
There are many different approaches being taken around the world to regulation. We have gene edited hornless cattle in Brazil approved as non-GMO, and it’s likely they won’t be regulated as GMO in Argentina too. Canada regulates on the novelty of the product, and since we’re introducing a variation that already exists, it would be non-GMO there too. Clearly the international landscape is very unaligned but as nations individually continues to accept gene edited animals, Europe will have to adjust its stance to remain competitive, particularly as we’re clearly not talking about transgenic technology [the introduction of foreign DNA into a species] so these variations already exist in nature, and the meat or food product will be indistinguishable to existing products on the market today.
There is a range of different gene editing tools available today, most famously CRISPR Cas-9, but there are plenty of others including TALENS, zinc fingers and new iterations of CRISPR using different enzymes. What do you use?
We’re tool agnostic. Like everyone, we are always looking at the next tools and set of base editors; we use the best tool required by the job at hand.