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Home News Headlines Vaccine could aid in horn fly control

Vaccine could aid in horn fly control

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June 7, 2012 - A lot of technologies, or at least the seed for those technologies, exist in sort of a vacuum between the university lab and the field where a farmer or rancher has to make a living. The next big thing is out there, possibly sitting on a shelf in a lab somewhere. Jenny Corbin knew that when she had to come up with an idea for her Entrepreneurship MBA class at the University of Louisville. She didn't know what her plan would be, but she knew it would have something to do with agriculture.

What she found, while doing a simple Internet search for agriculture technologies, was a patent by a husband and wife entomology team at the University of Auburn. Eddie and Mary Cupp created a vaccine against the ubiquitous and dreaded horn fly that works by blocking a chemical the flies secrete to draw blood. The Cupps tested it on cattle at Auburn and it worked well, but they never pushed for commercial development.

"Their interest was strictly in the scientific side of things," Corbin said of the Cupps. "They never made a serious push to get it to market. When I saw the words 'horny fly vaccine,' that was a red flag for me -- a good one. This was something people would be interested in."

Corbin's interest stems from her background with horses. She and her husband own a livestock trailer business, and Jenny still keeps horses; she knows all about horn flies.

"I mostly came into this from the equine side of things," she said. "I was a military kid and we traveled a lot, but when we settled in Virginia we had a small horse farm and I involved with 4-H and FFA cutting and reigning. Doing this has kind of opened my eyes to the other side of things."

The result of Corbin's interest is a start-up company called TNG Pharmaceuticals that is developing the vaccine under the name FlyVax. FlyVax has investors, a board of directors, and advisors and consultants from nearly every sector of agriculture. Corbin said she hopes to have FlyVax on the market in three to six years, but there is much to do before that can happen.

"As it comes out of Auburn, it's just a patent with all the work done in a lab setting," she said. "That's very different from real world research. We're making modifications now. There is a very clear path for us to follow. The first thing is to make sure that all human and livestock safety precedents are followed, and then to get approval to test it in a real world setting. It's a completely novel product. There's not another vaccine like this out there. We'll have one chance to see that it works, and so we have to make sure we do everything right."

Horn flies inflict about $1 billion in damage to livestock in North America every year. Jason Banta, a Texas AgriLife Extension livestock specialist based in Overton, said horn fly losses come from reduced milk yields, lower beef production and less money for the producer. He said he hadn't heard of the vaccine before being asked out it. But he does know about horn flies.

"They (horn flies) suck blood from the cattle and greatly reduce their performance," Banta said. "They're a blood-sucking parasite. They generally stay along the top of the animal and feed on the back and shoulder and sides, or they might go to the belly for shade during the heat of the day. There are a lot of various things you can do to try to control horn flies, but when they get to about 250 flies per animal you have to treat for them."

FlyVax is designed to counteract the horn fly's anti-clotting agent by triggering an immune response that clots the blood at the point where the terrible little fly sinks its fangs into the animal. That makes it very hard for the fly to suck the blood it needs to survive and, just as importantly, reproduce. Tests done by the Cupps at Auburn showed a 50 percent reduction in feeding by horn flies on cattle that had been vaccinated.

"It's like the fly is trying to drink a thick milkshake through a very thin straw," Corbin said. "The female gets half her nutrients, half her hydration. She has a hard time surviving, much less reproducing."

Auburn granted Corbin an option on the vaccine for a small fee, and Corbin, with a team of four others from the University of Louisville, has taken the vaccine to five business competitions and won four of them, including two in Texas -- at Rice University and the University of Texas. She has also met with officials at Texas AgriLife Extension and notes that all of the company's investors are from Texas.

"We're based in Louisville, but all of us have a sentimental attachment to Texas," she said. "Right now, we want to make sure that when we pull the chord on this thing that we're ready to go."


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