Rich Glynn, a straight-talking entrepreneur from South Dakota, doesn't mince words when explaining why a partnership between his fledgling goose operation and the University of North Dakota is a match made in heaven.
“Had it not been for UND and the support of that University, we would never be where we are now,” he said.
Glynn's referring to a collaboration between Interglobal Biologics, Inc., a biotech offshoot of Schiltz Foods, Inc., Sisseton, S.D., and the University of North Dakota Research Foundation (UNDRF), a UND-affiliated development organization, that's creating an innovative new treatment for West Nile virus (WNV) using the antibodies drawn from geese.
The two entities have combined forces to form a new business, known as Avianax, to nurture the biotechnology and get it to market. The development also could prove to be an economic shot in the arm for Tolna, N.D., about 90 miles west of Grand Forks, where the largest research goose farm in North America has been established to supply the sera needed to produce the vaccines.
Glynn said UND microbiology and immunology experts, along with UNDRF folks who know their way around the biotech industry, gave the new business instant legitimacy and credibility in its quest to get the promising new vaccine tested and licensed.
“We're goose herders out of northeast South Dakota, ”Glynn said. “We didn't know anything when we started doing this, and what we did know we learned from the Internet or by making calls to the (Food and Drug Administration).”
Avianax is poised to move into the new REAC 1, which contains the Center of Excellence for Life Sciences and Advanced Technology (COELSAT). The company also has purchased a former turkey farm near Tolna and renovated it into a goose operation that will hold more than 2,500 birds.
Just as importantly, Avianax is collaborating with industry partners, including fellow REAC 1 tenant NovaDigm Therapeutics, Inc.; Winnipeg-based Cangene Corp., which specializes in manufacturing vaccines and antibodies for clinical testing; and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
At REAC 1, Avianax also enjoys the experience of Dr. David Bradley, UND associate professor of microbiology and immunology, an expert in preclinical tests needed to turn goose antibodies into therapies to treat humans infected with West Nile virus.
Bradley, with Barry Milavetz, UND interim vice president for research and economic development, and Jim Petell, executive director of the UND Research Foundation, joined Jim Melland, formerly of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., to bring a local economy focus to the project. Melland contacted the parent company of Avianax, Schiltz Foods, three years ago when the school was asked to figure out how to deal with a virus that infected the company's domestic geese flock.
Now, Bradley is the principal scientist for Avianax in the laboratory, extracting antibodies from geese. The antibodies are the key ingredient in the immune response to West Nile virus.
“The use of goose antibodies is unique in that avian antibodies do not bind to other cells of the immune system in the way that mammalian — mouse and human — antibodies do, and thus do not need significant modifications to prevent unwanted inflammatory responses,” Bradley said.
The opening of REAC 1 and its state-of-the-art biosafety level-3 (BSL-3) laboratories greatly assist Bradley's ongoing research. Previously, much of his work had to be sent to Iowa State University in Ames for testing, as there was no suitable BSL-3 at UND or in the region.
“REAC 1 will allow us to perform all of these studies on site in the BSL-3 and animal BSL-3 facilities,” he said. “BSL-3 space is very limited nationwide, and there are long waits to do studies elsewhere.”
“Without a BSL-3 facility, we would never get out of the preclinical stage of the project and would not be in North Dakota,” Glynn said.
A finicky bird
Then there's the Avianax operation in Tolna. Glynn said that having a goose farm within 90 miles of UND saves Avianax time and money. Before, raw materials had to be shipped up from Schiltz Foods in Sisseton, a 350-mile round trip.