EpiBiome seeks to develop treatments, feed additives to replace antibiotic use

By Aerin Einstein-Curtis contact

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock.com
© iStock.com

Related tags: Bacteria

Replacing some agricultural antibiotic use with bacteriophage technology is a long-term goal for EpiBiome.

The startup recently received $6m in Series A funding to continue development of antibiotic-free treatments for some common animal agricultural issues like mastitis in dairy cattle or, eventually, improving gut health, said Nick Conley, CEO and cofounder.

“Our technology consists of bacteriophages,” ​he told FeedNavigator. They work by targeting bacteria through unique receptors on the bacteria's surface, injecting their DNA into the bacteria, and hijacking the bacteria's cellular machinery to make more copies of themselves, killing the bacteria in the process. These newly created phages can attack more bacteria and all with exquisite selectivity, he added.   

The company focuses on precision microbiome engineering, he said. The technology should allow for bacteriophages treatments to target specific strains of disease causing bacteria.

Antibiotic treatments can be used to kill a wide range of bacteria, he said. But, these treatments would target the specific ones causing a disease.

Future research

In the future, there are several animal production issues that the group is planning to address, said Conley.  Some of the prospective research areas include causes of piglet diarrhea and calf respiratory diseases.

 “Some might be related to gut microbiota,” ​he said, “adding phages to feed stock to make sure that animals stay healthy​.”

“There are certainly applications in feed to do the gut microbiota,”​ he said. “For second and third target products you’d be foolish to neglect that space.”

The work with feed and the gut microbiome would also look to apply pressure to specific bacteria and to make surviving pathogenic bacteria less virulent, said Conley. “It’s important to look at strategies that work with resistance,” ​he added.

“With phages, by targeting a structure on the surface of the bacteria they require to causes disease, you can really force bacteria down certain evolutionary pathways whereby they lose the structures that enable them to cause disease​,” ​he said. “You force bacteria to choose between survival, which takes away their ability to causes disease, or to accept death by phage.”

 Current project

At the moment, the company has been working on an antibiotic-free treatment for dairy cattle mastitis, said Conley. The treatment would target the bacteria causing the disease and potentially prevent the animal from having to be removed from production.

“It’s an expensive disease,” he said. ​Cows that have the disease, even on the sub-clinical level, may produce less milk or milk of reduced quality, and it can result in long-term damage to the cow’s productivity, he added.  

Currently, to treat the disease animals are given a course of antibiotics, he said. But, that during and for a period after treatment the milk generated cannot be used for regular production.

Some phage cocktails have already been granted 'generally recognized as safe' (GRAS) status by the Food and Drug Administration, he said. The company is set to seek a similar listing when its treatment is perfected.

“One of the most exciting things is not having to worry about antibiotic residue,” ​said Conley. “They [phages] would be safe for use in the food supply, and they’re destroyed by pasteurization.”

The treatment is still being studied and results from initial dairy cattle tests are expected later this year, he said. Results in the lab have already been positive.

How treatments are created

To produce a treatment for mastitis, the company gathered hundreds milk specimens to isolate the bacteria causing the disease, said Conley. The company worked with dairy diagnostic labs to obtain isolates and researchers also gathered samples from around dairy facilities including runoff water and manure to collect naturally occurring phages.

“We can take billions of different phages and put them in a flask,”​ he said. “We co-culture them with the mastitis causing bacteria, and we take advantage of the fact that the phages that are most successful at killing the bacteria are the ones that propagate. We can then isolate the 'winning' phages.

Eventually, the work leads to a cocktail of phages that have been chosen for their ability to kill specific bacteria– like those that cause mastitis, he said. 

However, the larger goal isn’t to create a farm-specific treatment, but one that can be used to combat the disease in any part of the country, he said.

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