Improving global food security through aquaculture

Improving global food security through aquaculture Jeremiah Gilmore and Dr Kwang Chul discuss the development of algal-based oral delivery platforms for vaccine administration in aquaculture. Photo: MicroSynbiotiX

Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector globally, with a key emphasis on sustainable food production, but farmers face a crisis with more than US$ ten billion worth of aquaculture stocks lost annually as a result of disease.

Biotech company MicroSynbiotiX is using genetically modified microalgae to develop novel, cost-effective oral delivery platforms for vaccine administration, helping to protect aquaculture populations against common bacterial infections and reduce antibiotic use.

MicroSynbiotiX is an aquaculture biotechnology company established in 2016 in Cork, with a further location in San Diego. Founders Simon Porphy, CEO, and Antonio Lamb, COO, recognised the global interest in algal synthetic biology.

“Coming from a bioprocess engineering background, I had previously worked with microalgae as a platform for the production of biofuels and omega three fatty acids, and recognised their untapped potential and scalability,” Simon Porphy explained.

“Although algal synthetic biology is in its infancy, it’s a very fast-moving branch of science, and many companies from diverse fields are interested in its potential. Using my co-founder Antonio’s expertise in genetic engineering, we investigated the challenges of algal modification. Initially, we conducted a pilot project where we attempted to express insulin in microalgae, so that diabetic patients could take oral tablets as opposed to having injections. The future aim would be to modify algae to express a proinsulin that would stimulate the pancreas to produce insulin naturally. However, developing an oral delivery platform for human therapeutics can be challenging, as the capital required to get regulatory approval between US$ 500 million and US$ 1 billion, with a timeframe of 10 to 15 years. We therefore decided to focus on the development of veterinary vaccines.”

US$10 billion annual stock losses

“We started to look at aquaculture, and found out that there was great potential market for our oral delivery platform in commercial fish farms,” he said and commented that previously, farmers have used antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, but there is significant concern around antimicrobial resistance being linked to one million deaths per year.

“With aquaculture growing rapidly as a sustainable food source, we wanted to look at ways of improving global food security and reduce annual stock losses valued at US$ ten billion USD, enough to feed 90 million people. Vaccination is a better alternative, as it uses the natural immune system of the fish to prevent disease in the first place. Fish populations can be vaccinated, but the current process uses hand-held injection techniques which are expensive and labour intensive; imagine a country like Norway with about 300 million fish – you would have to individually vaccinate each and every one of them.

He added that there is also no way of vaccinating shrimps using current methods, and so they wanted to make cost-effective vaccinations that would be applicable across a wide range of species.

“Oral vaccines are promising; however, you need a delivery system that can resist the low pH in the stomach and the enzymes in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract of the fish. It needs to be able to reach the hindgut to be available for absorption, without being destroyed,” he said.

“I came across Algenuity while I was exploring algal technology,” Simon Porphy explained.

This algae technology development and licensing company has world-class expertise in algal biotechnology. UK-based Algenuity’s multidisciplinary team develops proprietary and integrated solutions that increase productivity and performance of algal strains, reduce time to market for algal bioproducts, and boost overall profitability.

These enabling technologies include the Algem labscale photobioreactor, a non-GM directed evolution platform, GM strain engineering platforms, and novel bioprocess development and optimisation tools.

Understanding challenges

“The company had consistently published papers and articles, and had been at numerous conferences. There was a clear gap in the tools available for algal genetic modification, and Algenuity was making significant progress in this field. We wanted to engage with the team there, as they had shared values and held a lot of expertise in the area. They helped us modify microalgae to express specific therapeutic proteins to better understand the challenges we would face, and how to proceed with our own modification work. Working with Algenuity was a good validation process for us; it helped us to confirm that our methods were suitable before we continued our research.”

According to Simon Porphy, MicroSynbiotiX is now at the point where it has engineered microalgae to express a vaccine, and successfully demonstrated activation of the immune system in both zebrafish and seabass after feeding them the modified algae.

“We showed that some vaccines survived the GI tract and were absorbed in the hindgut, and ELISA blood testing data verified that an immune response was caused. Our next step is to confirm that a protective immune response is stimulated after re-infection, demonstrating that the fish can survive a disease after vaccination. Algenuity has been brilliant for expert advice, as well as in helping with our validation studies. We were extremely satisfied with the research work that we collaborated on, and look forward to engaging with them on future joint ventures,” Simon Porphy concluded.

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