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.
Avianax found just what it needed when it purchased a former turkey operation from a local farmer. The farm was renovated to accommodate geese, a highly intelligent and social animal that needs about five square feet of space per bird.
“If you try to pen them up too much, they die,” Glynn said. “They are a hard avian to raise because they are so finicky.”
What made the situation in Tolna even better was that the community still had a defunct poultry processing plant that presented a perfect spot for off-site experiments and preparation before the raw materials are brought to the clean laboratories inside REAC 1.
“The city of Tolna continued to maintain it after it closed in 1994,” Glynn said. “They kept the heat on and did a lot of things so it didn't go to wrack and ruin in the hope that some day they would be able to open it up to another business.”
Glynn said there are clear economic development opportunities in Tolna. Two farm families have been hired to maintain the Avianax goose farm, feeding the birds, keeping them cool and protecting them from predators.
“It gives them a good ancillary income,” Glynn said.
Avianax also plans to hire people to work in the preparation facility in Tolna. Eventually, the business would like to get to the point where it is drawing antibodies from goose eggs as well as the geese.
Glynn explains that one goose egg can produce at least six doses of vaccine, compared to only two from chicken eggs. One dose of small pox vaccine costs about $33. Using those figures, one goose egg potentially could net Avianax $190. Each goose typically lays 30 to 40 eggs per season.
Bradley said his work in REAC 1 also will provide opportunities for North Dakota's graduate students and possibly for undergraduates to be involved in real, meaningful research. It provides a solid foundation on which to build an even more focused infectious disease research program at the University, he said.
“I see the work being done collaboratively between UND, UNDRF and Avianax, as well as the work by NovaDigm, as just the first step in this growing research area that will benefit the area economically and provide excellent opportunities for UND and North Dakota State students and graduates.”