There have been nearly 1,600 cases of West Nile virus reported in the U.S., so far this year. Forty-four cases of the mosquito-borne illness have been here in Minnesota.
But research in our region could lead to a breakthrough in treatment of the disease. A small Grand Forks biotech company is preparing for human trials of West Nile antibodies produced by geese.
In the summer of 2002, a new disease decimated the goose flocks at Schiltz Farms in South Dakota, a business billed as the largest goose farm in North America.
"The geese were coming out, staggering around, falling down and then later dying. And we lost in a two-week period of time, approximately 34,000 geese," said Richard Glynn, who was the farm's business manager when West Nile hit.
Glynn says geese that survived West Nile were strongly resistant to it. Schiltz farms worked with veterinarians to collect antibodies from the blood of survivors.
"We took those antibodies and treated our geese with them in 2004 and our death loss basically went down from 34,000 geese to 1,000 to 2,000," Glynn said.
That discovery saved the goose farm. It also piqued Glynn's curiosity about the science behind the discovery. Today, he heads the biotech company, Avianax.
HARVESTING EGG ANTIBODIES
At the Avianax lab on the University of North Dakota campus in Grand Forks, technician Travis Alvine carefully cracks open a goose egg. After opening the egg shell, Alvine uses a suction tool to remove the egg white.
"All the antibodies that we're interested in getting are in the egg yolk," Alvine said.
This is the first step in a complex, patented process to purify the antibodies from the goose egg.
It turns out geese are very efficient at producing antibodies after they've been given an inactive virus. And a quirk of goose biology means mammals don't see those goose antibodies as a threat. That's because the goose antibodies only attach to the target virus.
Collaborating on the research, Dr. David Bradley, who is head of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UND, says the unique structure makes goose antibodies safer than antibodies produced by most animals.
"They don't generate the same kind of immune response. They don't cause inflammation like mammalian antibodies would. They simply bind and coat whatever they're after in such a way that it's then simply sloughed off or cleared out of the body naturally without triggering inflammation." Bradley said.
Inflammatory response is a problem when using antibodies from animals. The antibody will kill the target virus, but the body also attempts to fight off the antibody, which can lead to severe complications, according to Bradley.
HUMAN TRIALS NEXT STEP
In studies with hamsters done at research universities in Iowa and Colorado, the goose antibody both prevented West Nile infection and cured infected animals.
But it's not a permanent vaccine.
Of course, animal studies are a long way from treatment for humans, but the results are very encouraging, says Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research group . Poland is also a paid consultant to Avianax.
Poland said the goose antibodies clearly wiped out the West Nile virus in hamsters without negative side effects.
"That's a big hint. Enough of a hint to tell you this is worth investing money in and starting small clinical trials. And that's the next step that needs to happen," Poland said.
Avianax researchers anticipate human trials within a couple of years, but they are already moving on to other viral diseases. Bradley says they have tested a variety of diseases; Dengue fever, malaria, rabies, and some viruses so dangerous they can only use its DNA.
"So far, the geese have produced antibodies to almost everything we've tried. So I've been repeatedly surprised," Bradley said.
"So I mean, it's a great platform, a great incubator to create antibodies for virtually anything."
What's the potential for goose antibodies to save human lives?
Poland says the research could lead to treatments for diseases that are now untreatable, like West Nile. It also has potential as a rapid response to a viral pandemic, he said.
"Looking out even further, might this be a technology where we're not producing antibody, but vaccine," Poland said. "Looking even further out, might we be able to harness this technology in developing antibodies that could attack and kill cancer cells."
Poland says this could turn out to be a very significant discovery, found not by scientists, but a farmer trying to save his livelihood.
Officials at Avianax say they are awaiting the results of final animal testing but expect to soon begin the process of asking the government to allow human trials with the West Nile goose antibody.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.