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Collaborative success

The University of Otago has played a key role in an innovative collaboration between pharmaceutical giant Bayer and three New Zealand universities, resulting in the development of new treatments for diseases such as mastitis in dairy cows.

A research group established by Bayer together with scientists from Otago and Massey Universities (and subsequently Auckland University) are working collaboratively to research and develop new treatment solutions for diseases and other challenges which limit dairy productivity.

Led by Bayer's New Zealand-based APAC Development Centre, with input from the company's head office in Germany and its regional centre in Singapore, the aim was to identify an area of need in the market, bring the universities together and then work on developing products to meet market demand. The company is investing more than $1 million a year in the group's work, initially focusing on the problem of mastitis and now exploring new developments in reproductive health.

The University of Otago has been involved from the start of the collaboration and has played an integral role in helping develop novel formulations of antibiotics which better target mastitis infection in dairy cows – and for longer – resulting in higher cure rates, and less waste of milk and revenue.

Bayer's APAC Development Centre head, veterinarian Dr Richard Emslie, says bringing together expertise from different universities has worked very well.

“Mastitis is a huge problem, not only in New Zealand where the disease costs $280 million a year in lost milk production, but globally where losses have been put at $US35 billion.

“While Bayer is doing intensive research into mastitis, it makes sense for us to work with local New Zealand university research centres where we can utilise a wide base of knowledge and expertise.

“The universities also get to work on the development of new products that the market needs and have potential to be sold worldwide through Bayer's international distribution channels – it really is a win-win situation.”

Otago's input into the research programme has been led by Professor Ian Tucker (School of Pharmacy) and Dr Olaf Bork (School of Pharmacy/Centre for Bioengineering and Nanomedicine). Tucker says the mastitis research has been a truly collaborative effort, comprising Otago expertise in drug delivery, Massey's knowledge in animal husbandry and trials, Auckland's chemistry knowledge and Bayer's development, manufacturing and marketing skills.

Acting CEO of the University's commercialisation company, Otago Innovation Ltd, Pete Hodgson, says that the success of the project shows the strength of practical science and innovation at the University of Otago, and the benefits of working closely with industry from an early stage to bring research developments to the market.

“This research group set up by Bayer is a great example of what Otago Innovation is trying to achieve … leveraging the University's research knowledge via a competent industry partner to create valuable products and services. The end result of this great collaboration has been closer relationships between university researchers throughout the country and business with clear beneficial commercial outcomes for all parties – and for the country.

“This is research that will make a difference and we're very pleased with the progress made working with Bayer. We're also delighted by the fact that these new animal health products will make a big difference to the early prevention and control of mastitis, improving milk production in a vital industry for the New Zealand economy."

Mastitis is arguably the biggest production-limiting challenge faced by dairy farmers and also has a big impact on animal welfare. Traditional antibiotic therapies have limited cure rates which, to some degree, result from inadequate concentrations of drug being reached at the infection sites within the udder.

Modern formulation and analytic technology allows the development of more advanced drug delivery to achieve higher concentrations of "active" at the infection sites, for longer, thus achieving higher cure rates. In addition, this enables the reduction of milk withhold times, thus reducing revenue loss through discarded milk.

With such hurdles to overcome, Emslie says a multidisciplined approach is required, which is why the three New Zealand universities are involved. Each research partner has a different expertise that can be brought to the table – formulation, drug delivery, medicinal chemistry, dairy research and industry/market knowledge.

Bork says he is excited about the results so far and praises the collaborative approach to innovation. Emslie agrees and says the collaboration aligns with the Government's interest in promoting relationships between industry and universities.

“Bayer has always had ongoing relationships with universities all over the world and we are delighted with the success of the research group here in New Zealand.”

Research focuses on delivery of bioactives

Affectionately known as “the FDB”, the University of Otago's Formulation and Delivery of Bioactives Research Theme provides structure and focus for research which addresses the challenges of delivering bioactives most effectively to their targets – for example, to bacteria in the udder of a cow.

Bioactives are compounds which act on any living thing and include vaccines, drugs, genes, pesticides, cells and other materials (e.g. even perfumes).

The theme is convened by Professor Ian Tucker (School of Pharmacy) and includes scientists from a number of related departments, including Physiology, Anatomy, Pharmacology and Toxicology, Microbiology and Immunology.

In its 17 years, the theme has run 16 international conferences drawing scientists, industry people and students together to share their bioactive-delivery problems and to discuss cutting-edge solutions provided by some 50 international keynote speakers, in addition to New Zealand scientists and PhD students. This has been a stimulus to formulation and delivery research in New Zealand and given Otago an international reputation in the field. For example, the FDB often combines with the New Zealand Chapter of the CRS (Controlled Release Society), a US-based international association devoted to delivery science and technology of which Tucker is the current president.

In 2008, the theme's 10th conference was devoted in large part to formulation and delivery strategies for drugs and vaccines for companion animals (dogs, cats), livestock (cows, deer, etc.) and wildlife (possums). Bomac/Bayer was a platinum sponsor for that conference, recognising its importance to research in this field and to their relationship with Otago.

Photo: Graham Warman
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