Transitioning from a University research laboratory to a more commercially focused venture, DRL is now taking its deer disease expertise to the much larger dairying industry.
From Deer Research Laboratory to Disease Research Limited: the DRL of 2018 owes a lot to the DRL of 1985.
Established by Professor Frank Griffin as part of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, the small but influential Deer Research Laboratory broke new ground, particularly around the industry scourges of TB and Johne's disease. But now, with the support of Otago Innovation Ltd (OIL) – the University of Otago's commercialisation arm – DRL, now known as Disease Research Limited, is translating that expertise into other areas of animal management, including dairying.
Although he officially retired in 2016, Griffin remains keen to maintain a research role, with links to the University of Otago.
"To me just transitioning DRL into a service laboratory wasn't that appealing: research was the thing that gave me a buzz," he says.
"Our research has always been applied – looking at new diagnostics, finding genes of resilience and developing vaccines. We weren't plumbing the depths, we were looking at functional responses to see how we could use those to bring commercial gain or economic gain."
DRL has always reinvested surpluses into research and Griffin estimates it now totals around $15 million. "We've always paid our way. But now we are transitioning from a cloistered University environment to a much more rugged commercial environment."
To do that, DRL is expanding its portfolio from focusing on deer – a relatively small industry which couldn't guarantee a future – into one embracing dairy, an obvious target for future research and growth.
For example, Johne's disease is common to cows, sheep, deer and goats, so DRL is translating its deer expertise into dairy, a significant challenge given it is an industry of big players.
Their first incursion involved a memorandum with CRV Ambreed – a key player on the breeding side of the industry – making DRL their preferred technical and diagnostic services provider.
They are also working with a large corporate dairy farmer, testing 59,000 cows on more than 50 farms for Johne's disease and bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD), and they are assisting the Southern Dairy Hub which runs a number of research farms focusing on animal health, nutrition and sustainable management systems.
"It means for the first time we can have a volume of service which could make the lab quite independent financially. But it also brings with it some research challenges because historically the dairy industry has done very little in those disease areas."
Griffin says dairy requires quite a different disease management approach. A diseased deer would be culled immediately, but its carcass would still retain commercial value because Johne’s is not deemed a health hazard.
In dairying all the value comes after calving and milk production begins, so this means being more discriminating about culling.
For example, a 1,200 cow herd in which 300 animals are reactive seems like a huge problem, but DRL's solution was to take a two-tiered approach, using a screening test for markers of disease exposure, with a follow-up test to identify those that are actually diseased and present a risk of shedding disease to other animals. These cows can then be stratified according to their disease status, allowing farmers to make informed choices about culling.
"We can then go from around 25 per cent of the herd to around five per cent and say these are the animals you must cull. You can leave the others behind because even though they have been exposed they are doing okay: they're not going to break down and cause disease."
Griffin says one farmer with 1,200 cows was losing 80 to 100 animals per year, but that number has now been reduced to just four.
"After just one year we have stopped all this wastage and, equally, we think we are in even better shape in terms of disease control."
Much of the day-to-day work is carried out by research manager Dr Rory O'Brien and laboratory manager Simon Liggett, long-serving DRL staff who are now happily based at the Invermay Agricultural Centre alongside AgResearch with whom they have always had close links.
"It's always been a gumboots in this corner and lab coats in that corner sort of thing," says O'Brien. "We're not just boffins confined to the laboratory: we're out there as well, sampling our own animals for research purposes which makes us very relatable to farmers and vets."
They tend to share roles, especially when things are particularly busy, but usually Liggett looks after the diagnostics and talks to clients about the tests and results, allowing O'Brien to focus more on research.
Getting involved in dairy poses challenges, says Liggett, particularly trying to get into the heads of dairy farmers and vets.
"Fortunately there are deer vets who have branched out into dairying, so there are a number out there who know us well. Unfortunately we are competing with large, established companies."
Most of the herds they deal with have serious problems, Liggett explains: "We don't deal with average farm animals. These guys have come to us because the vet recognises they have a major problem."
On the research side, they have recently completed a study using an AGMARDT Agribusiness Innovation Grant, with co-funding from the New Zealand Deer Farmers Association, looking at augmenting their Johne's faecal test to also diagnose parasitic disease.
O'Brien says their University background has given them the ability to design their own tests and think outside the box a bit more, a unique point of difference for a diagnostic laboratory.
"This also means we don’t have to pay for off-the-shelf solutions which keeps our pricing very competitive.
"We grew out of a University research lab so we have that sort of enquiry-driven mentality: we need to retain that ethos in our new incarnation."
DRL has already developed proven diagnosis methods using blood and dung samples, and also utilised a test using milk, which is more readily collected and commonly used for Johne’s testing in the dairy industry.
Studies so far suggest milk testing is not as sensitive as blood testing, but Griffin says his team are looking to evaluate the relative performance of the different sample types through a series of systematic comparative studies.
Looking ahead, they are also applying for funds from MBIE (the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) for new areas of research, including parasites, which Griffin reckons probably cost New Zealand animal producers about a billion dollars in economic loss and drugs.
"Anti-parasitic drugs are the most widely used drugs in veterinary medicine."
From the age of three months some animals are drenched every 28 days. "This increases the risk of resistance – and it's costly. It also prevents the very thing you want to happen: the animal developing its own protective immunity."
Griffin argues it would be better to reduce drenching and simply use it to control rather than kill the parasite. They could then use a stimulant to enhance the animal's own immunity.
"If you look at cancer research, the real advance has been in immune therapy – reprogramming immunity and encouraging the body's own killer immune response to the tumour.
"We believe you can apply the same strategy to parasites and are putting together a programme at the moment where we will use only one dose of drench along with an immune stimulant like probiotics."
Griffin is encouraged by DRL's future prospects, especially being able to work with OIL and be part of the new research theme Agriculture at Otago which is pulling together all the researchers at Otago doing work that relates to food production systems.
"OIL provided us with coverage in a commercial sense, so going in with them made sense. It meant the research and diagnostic side could continue to exist within a University environment and I could retain my opportunities here as an emeritus professor."
DRL is now managed by a board under the control of OIL. Outgoing OIL CEO Dr Pete Hodgson – a former veterinarian – says there were several reasons why they got involved. One of the key ones was Griffin and his staff whose expertise they were keen to maintain.
"Another factor was that the University was wishing to emphasise the fact it had considerable agricultural skill that it wasn't telling people about. That gave rise to Agriculture at Otago – headed by the same Frank Griffin," he says.
"DRL is a stand-out example of this University's contribution to the primary sector, and is readily identifiable."
"As Frank will tell you, there were 432 deer herds with TB and now there are two. Also, Johne's disease in New Zealand deer herds is now being managed – and managing Johne's in deer is a bit of a challenge."
Hodgson says they are also interested in DRL's research in areas such as parasites, and disease resistance and susceptibility.
"We couldn't lose that. We couldn't lose those guys and we couldn't lose the service to the New Zealand economy."
Hodgson can see plenty of scope for growth through offering services to dairying, including providing cost-effective management for Johne's disease.
"We don't try and get rid of Johne's for you – it's too expensive to kill the last bacteria. What DRL does is manage it in a cost-effective way so your production goes up, consistent with getting rid of the most affected cases."
Hodgson says any decision to spin out or hang on to DRL is likely to depend on how important the ongoing research is to the future of the company.
"If it continues to be half of the company, which it is at the moment, that would suggest that you would have it somewhat attached to the University because that provides a better research environment.
"On the other hand our job is not to become huge animal testers. So if DRL became a huge testing company it should, logically, be owned by someone else."