Small South Dakota company making big waves with animal vaccines

In the early months of 2020, a highly transmissible novel virus appeared in the United States.

No, not COVID-19. It was RHDV2, a hemorrhagic disease in both wild and domestic rabbits. 

Like Covid, it spreads easily. Unlike Covid, RHDV2 had a fatality rate of 70 percent or higher. Death was sudden – sometimes within 24 hours, and there was often no sign of illness.

As the world focused on the scramble by vaccine developers to make a vaccine to fight Covid in humans, a similar scramble was under way in the world of animal vaccine makers. Rabbits are the third most common companion animal behind dogs and cats. They are a mainstay of 4-H programs, and as the disease spread from state to state, rabbit enthusiasts grew alarmed.
The race to create a vaccine was won by a Brookings company called Medgene. Today, that vaccine is being distributed under an emergency use authorization from the United States Department of Agriculture. It is on its way to getting a conditional use authorization, and Medgene’s vaccine is the only one available in the United States for RHDV2.

Medgene has gone on to make even bigger waves in the world of animal vaccines. This month, the company announced that it had received USDA licenses to produce the first platform vaccines for both cattle and swine. 

The company likens the technology to a Keurig beverage machine, which makes a variety of beverages depending on which pod is inserted into the machine. Like a pod, specific genetic information can be inserted into the platform, allowing Medgene to respond to changing diseases in a fraction of the time that it takes with traditional vaccine development. Bob Gentry, a veterinarian and advocate of the technology, estimated that a vaccine can be developed within weeks of identifying a disease. 

SDSU origins
Development of the platform technology started in 2010 with research by South Dakota State University Professor Alan Young, an animal disease researcher who serves as Medgene’s chief technology officer. Gary Bosch, a veterinarian and vice president of the company, said the technology was aimed at identifying foreign diseases and bringing vaccines to market rapidly.

Medgene had already developed animal vaccines – for example the company had brought to market a vaccine for Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease for deer farmers – when RHDV2 arrived in the United States. The sudden arrival of a foreign disease served as a proof of concept for the platform technology.

“This was it,” Bosch said. “This was exactly what the design around the platform technology was for.”

Medgene is one of three companies that are part of South Dakota Innovation Partners, a venture capital firm that was established to bring university research to market.

“This is a big deal,” said Joni Ekstrum, the executive director of the South Dakota Biotech Association. “South Dakota is leading the nation in these ag advances.”

Swine, cattle markets beckon
The development of the RHDV2 vaccine brought national exposure to Medgene through media stories and animal welfare groups. Testing on rabbits at Colorado State University showed the vaccine was highly effective, and Bosch said Medgene grew from about 20 employees to 65 in about two years. 

“The company has grown,” said Bosch, who is a veteran of the animal pharmaceutical industry. “The concept of the platform is really starting to shine through.”

Right now, the RHDV2 vaccine is distributed through veterinarians.

“The challenge that we have is that a lot of rabbit owners don’t go to veterinarians,” Bosch said. 

Jackie Pekkala, a rabbit breeder in Bryant said she doesn’t vaccinate her rabbits because she mainly sells them to people who want them as indoor pets. But if people plan to show their rabbits – environments in which they will be around a lot of other rabbits – then the vaccine is advised.

The RHDV2 vaccine proved the concept behind Medgene’s technology, but the market for rabbits is a drop in the ocean compared to the potential for the cattle and pork industries.

Glenn Muller, the executive director of the South Dakota Pork Producers Council, said he wasn’t familiar with Medgene or its technology. But he said there is always a desire in the industry for products that will improve animal health.

“We’re always looking for new technology and new vaccines that will help the overall health of the swine industry,” Muller said.

Ekstrum said that a small biotech company in South Dakota is creating technology that will have worldwide impact. 

“It’s way bigger than South Dakota,” she said. “I’m proud of them.”
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