Research into a promising alternative to antibiotics that prevents and treats bovine respiratory disease (BRD) has investors and the beef industry buzzing.
“My interest is to understand how the microbiome influences the animal’s overall health and response to disease,” says Dr. Christopher Belnap, co-founder and CEO of Resilient Biotics, based in North Carolina.
The Microbiology Society defines a microbiome as “the community of micro-organisms living together in a particular habitat. Humans, animals and plants have their own unique microbiomes, but so do soils, oceans and even buildings.” They contain bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa and while most of their components are beneficial, some are harmful.
Belnap holds a PhD in microbiology and his partner Greg Werner is a data scientist. Together, they hit on the idea that, if they could develop microbiome products that address disease and pathogens, they could have a far greater effect on livestock production efficiency even than feed additives, which Belnap had been working on before starting the company.
BRD, commonly called shipping fever, is the most common disease in North American feedlot cattle. It’s also the most costly, with an estimated price tag of $75 million annually in treatment and production loss in Canada.
It’s a stubborn disease because it’s extremely complex, with both bacterial and viral pathogens. Belnap says current treatment choices are limited. Vaccines need to be targeted, so don’t always work or several different ones need to be used. Since antibiotics are another go-to medication, the possibility of developing resistance on farms could make even this treatment ineffective.
In 2017, the World Health Organization recommended that farmers and food producers stop using antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease. The scientific review that led to the recommendation said that, where restrictions on antibiotic use were in place, there was an up to 39 per cent reduction in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals.
The threat of antimicrobial resistance from the overuse of antibiotics led the Canadian government in 2018 to make all medically important antimicrobials available to farmers by veterinary prescription only.
“We have some really great preliminary data that indicates we can control disease symptoms and occurrence of pathogens in live cattle,” he says. “Now it’s a matter of continuing to understand the product’s capabilities and figuring out how to get it into a commercial cattle production system.”
His company got a huge boost in this direction when it won the 2021 Beef Alliance Startup Challenge in March. The U.S. industry group put on the contest to connect early-stage startups with promising solutions for the cattle feeding industry with potential customers.
Out of a field of 30 companies, 10 were chosen to pitch their stories, and Resilient Biotics won the $50,000 cash prize as well as the opportunity to pilot their product with one of the member companies.
Earlier in the year, they were also able to raise $7.1 million in Series A round co-led by Berkeley Catalyst Fund and Fulcrum Global Capital.
The next big step in the process will be to test the product on a commercial farm.
“We are working toward a regulatory approval that will allow us to continue testing in commercial farms,” he says. “Once that is in place, we can then take advantage of the Beef Alliance relationship and work with industry partners to run pilot studies.”
In the meantime, they are continuing their testing on research farms to refine how they’re using the product, how much is being delivered and its efficacy. Then, there will be more regulatory work before bringing it to market.
In the future, he would like to develop more products for more species that suffer from respiratory disease using the approach they’re taking with cattle. Belnap is convinced it would increase productivity in many different livestock herds.
“We’re hoping to build a really robust pipeline for all the production animals — swine and poultry and even companion animals, as well.”
Lois Harris is an experienced Ontario freelance writer and editor working in the agriculture and food industry.