The partners predict that the technology will become a valuable component of integrated management strategies on-farm with both feed and water applications under investigation.
In the initial phases of the project, Skretting, which is Nutreco’s fish feed arm, will isolate the most prevalent specific strains of bacteria, while Proteon will determine the most effective complementary groups of phages. Researchers attached to the Skretting Aquaculture Research Centre (ARC) will then examine the efficacy of the phages during challenge trials.
Proteon already has a bacteriophage cocktail product, branded as BAFADOR, targeting Pseudomonas and Aeromonas infections in commercial aquaculture as well as supporting the immune system of fish. The Polish company reports positive feedback on that product to date; it has primarily been used in the aquaculture sector in India.
“The specificity of the bacteriophage is its advantage: it controls bad bacteria but does not harm the microbiome. But because of the specificity, and given the diversity of bacterial challenges, you ultimately should have multiple products. We have built a phage development platform and we are looking to find a way to apply that platform on a fairly large scale. In doing so, we are not oriented towards the short term, but we are thinking about the future, and that is the basis for partnering with Skretting. Their capacity and capabilities match well with our own. We are experts in bacteriophages, having spent 13 years developing our platform, and having several products on the market. In Skretting, we have a valuable partner, one with expertise in the field of aquaculture, a company that knows the species, the market challenges and has expertise in the delivery mechanism, in feed,” Matthew Tebeau, COO at Proteon Pharmaceuticals, told FeedNavigator.
Aquaculture is one of Proteon’s target markets, alongside the global dairy and poultry farming sectors.
It is still deemed to be an early stage biotech group, though, and hence the requirement for wider industry collaboration, said the COO. “When you take the knowledge and plans that we have and bring that capacity to an organization like Skretting, we believe that will increase the velocity to market of our technology.”
Applicable in all farming systems
Truls Dahl, business developer at Skretting, said health issues create significant challenges for farmers. “They are the limiting factor for growth in aquaculture.”
Products based on bacteriophages are an effective tool for fighting bacterial diseases in farmed fish and shrimp, he said.
“Potentially, we see that technology can be used in all types of farming systems. Application would vary depending on the kind of production in use. If you take shrimp ponds, we would look at both feed and water administration. If we used such products in open water salmon farming, however, the application would be feed only,” said Dahl.
Leveraging Skretting’s presence in all the aquaculture markets globally, the partners will first try to identify where the biggest bacterial challenges lie in terms of species and location.
Warm water species are prone to bacterial infections, and have fewer vaccine options, said Dahl. Vibriosis in shrimp aquaculture has been recognized as a constant threat.
Stability, bacterial resistance
But how can phages be developed so they are stable, so that they are resistant to the host’s immune system and environmental stressors including fluctuations in temperature, exposure to UV light and different pH levels?
“We have developed the knowhow to ensure our phages have ‘in-bottle’ shelf life of two years so they are stable for more than long enough to be delivered through the supply chain,” explained Tebeau.
Proteon has a whole set of tools and processes designed to produce a product that is precise, he said. Its platform “addresses risks related to potential bacterial resistance, addresses safety issues, and also addresses the environments in which the phages will need to act to successfully modulate or control bacterial populations.”
Bacterial resistance to phages was a hurdle the company met head on. “For us, that is a challenge that is resolved.”
Phage technology can be used routinely as a prevention strategy, said the partners.
“We know this from our current use of products,” said Tebeau.
“And it is always better to have a preventative strategy than try to fix problems later on,” stressed Dahl.
Dossier development for registration purposes in global markets is another goal of this new alliance, while the partners’ sustainability objectives are aligned through the initiative, added Tebeau.
“Our mission and visions are very compatible and built around sustainability. In our case, sustainability means reducing the risks of antimicrobial resistance, and also increasing the productivity [for producers] in the sense or reducing losses and waste. Those are important features for both parties.”
Having more than one solution available to tackle the myriad of health challenges aquaculture players face is critical, stressed Dahl.
Industry, he said, can see the dangers that arise from having a dependence on one type of product such as antibiotics. “Whatever we can do to have a more integrated approach, to introduce new products that can tackle the challenges from different angles, makes us better prepared for the future.”