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precision biologics
Hens in a henhouse, from iStock

Precision biologics: the key to reducing antibiotic use in livestock?

March 12, 2020

Pathogens, as is clear to anyone tracking the outbreak of Covid-19 on humans or African Swine Fever on pigs, can inflict disastrously global impacts on public health, as well as wreaking havoc on vital food supply chains. To date, preventing disease outbreaks among livestock has largely involved a “prophylactic” mix of vaccines, antibiotics or other antimicrobial chemicals; yet the excessive use of these pharmaceuticals, sometimes as a sneaky ploy to boost growth rates, risks creating even more lethal pathogens.

Public fears of antibiotic-resistant super-bugs spawning from livestock is one reason consumers and regulators are pressing meat producers to pare back or eliminate sub-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in food production. In turn, many food companies have made public commitments to reduce meat raised with the use of antibiotics from their supply chains. But that all leaves producers on an urgent, difficult mission to find new and better ways to keep their herds or flocks protected from diseases that can decimate entire populations if a poultry house or hog house is compromised.

$22 billion losses

Consequently, there is a growing number of early-stage companies raising cash on the promise to do more for animal health protection with less. One of these is Canada’s NovoBind, which is developing a precision biologics platform to protect livestock against pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Currently, the team claims, the company is tackling a list of pathogens that cause an aggregate annual loss of $22 billion to the poultry, shrimp, and companion animal sectors.

Pressing ahead on this front has helped NovoBind close its Series A funding round; the company has not come on record with a precise amount as yet. The first clues of a round falling into place came last year. In June 2019, NovoBind first lifted the lid on a joint development and commercialization agreement for advanced salmonella biologics with Lallemand Animal Nutrition; this came alongside Lallemand taking equity in NovoBind as a foundation stone of NovoBind’s Series A.

Further blocks have fallen into place since to close out the round. In addition to Lallemand, several other strategic investors revealed their participation, including Natural Products Canada and the Center for Aquaculture Technologies. Specialist financial investors included Seventure Partners, Mindset Venture Group, Lightheart Management Partners and Carpere Ventures. The financing was supported as well by returning angel investors from NovoBind’s prior seed round, such as John Schmelke, who chairs Evergro Canada, and Don Willoughby.

‘Disarming a pathogen’s weapons system’

Why such investor enthusiasm for precision biologics? And what, for that matter, are precision biologics? In the case of Novobind, it means combining the science of nanocapsuling — the engineering of very small scale, heat resistant containers  — with some of the dazzling immunology research that has been circulating in the human biotech world for the last few decades.

The inspiration for what to put inside those nanocapsules can come from strange places; one part of Novobind’s approach, for instance, owes a lot to the natural immunological power of animals like llamas. “Our job is to find the antibodies in the llama that are doing the most effective work,” said Hamlet Abnousi, co-founder and CEO of NovoBind, in a recent phone interview with AFN. These have evolved to be both effective and simple, and easy to edit the proteins into new formulations that suit novel purposes. “We create libraries of these antibody fragments,” he said, explaining how his team of scientists — centered around Salina Chan, Rob Fraser, Filip Van Petegem, Slade Loutet and Sylvia Cheung — gather knowledge on how to design and engineer these protein structures through fermentation to suit differing purposes, and to fight different pathogens affecting different species.

“In my mind, what they are is tiny fragments of protective antibodies that can seek out and bind to and disarm a pathogen’s weapons system,” he said. “Essentially what we’re doing is providing passive immunity until a bird gets a chance to create its own immunity.” The process could be relevant for an entire life cycle of a shrimp, he added, as shrimps “do not have an adaptive immunity.”

Three key businesses use Novobind’s platform are Ablynx, Argenx and Biotalys — a Belgian biotech company, which recently topped up its Series C.

Describing their due diligence process of Novobind by phone to AFN, Wei Lin of Lightheart Management Partners and Laëtitia Gerbe of Seventure Partners both expressed confidence in the technology at play but recognised a need for things still to be proved in further trials. Equally, their emphasis was on Novobind to find a way to make theiplatform financially viable.

“This technology, as a rule, has a track record; it is is not coming out of the blue,” said Gerbe. “And the momentum is there because the industry is looking for ways to deal with bans on prophylactic uses of antibiotics, but one of the key constraints of this market is the ability to be cost-effective.” Margins are much tighter than for pharmaceuticals, she noted.

“We were impressed with NovoBind’s technology and potential for growth,” agrees Shelley King, CEO of Natural Products Canada, in a statement sent to AFN. “The company understands the market need, and has wisely positioned itself to meet the global demand for safe and effective solutions that can replace antibiotics and other antimicrobial chemicals.”

Healthy alternatives

At the Animal Health Investment Europe Innovation Showcase in London this year, two winning startups also reflected how investors are recognizing many other startups that can find comparative ways to reduce or replace antibiotics. Many of these, as is a theme in animal health, have also filtered across from human biotech. At the drinks reception after the livestock showcase, for instance, AFN spoke to a member of the winning team from Glysantis, another Canadian biotech company researching and developing a nanoparticle platform technology of its own called NanoDendrix; this has a wide range of biomedical applications. Ricky Ghoshal, who is VP of business development there, described how his team had also “developed the ability to dramatically up-regulate the innate immune response, leading to potential anti-viral and anti-bacterial applications – currently focused on the aquaculture and poultry industries.”

(The solutions, of course, did not stop at infectious diseases, either. Winning the prize for the best health solutions in pets and companion animals was a startup capable of treating cancer and auto-immune diseases, PetBioCell, which offers personalised GMP-grade (good manufacturing process) cell therapies for dogs, cats and horses.)

Unfortunately, the Animal AgTech Innovation Summit that was due to take place on March 16 was postponed but here’s a sneak peek at three companies set to present when the event has a new date.

Armenta (Israel) has developed the first non-antibiotic treatment for bovine mastitis using acoustic pulse technology (APT). Mastitis causes annual losses of over $6 billion in the US and Europe. Infected cows treated with APT have shown 70% cure rates and consequently 10% increase in milk yield. Implementing APT increases farmer profitability, improving herd health and cow welfare.

Nextbiotics (USA) has a goal to leverage cutting-edge synthetic biology tools and bacteriophage technology to provide unique solutions to the antibiotic resistance crisis. It offers solutions to destroy pathogenic (bad) bacteria. Its first product is a feed additive for animal producers to enhance animal nutrition and significantly reduce the use of antibiotics.

Simple Ag Solutions (USA) is a B2B, software-as-a-service company providing the bridge between animal health and production. Its platform was engineered from the ground up for livestock and poultry producers to manage antibiotic usage, optimize production, and facilitate audits.

What is your solution for using fewer antibiotics in livestock? Let us know by dropping me a note at [email protected]

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