The $550 Million Vaccine Mankato company has breakthrough in swine disease

A Mankato company, aided by University of Minnesota researchers, has developed a new pig vaccine that farmers and veterinarians are hoping will eventually eradicate a disease that costs the industry more than $550 million a year.

For more than 20 years, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS, pronounced ('pers') has been a bane to hog farmers, killing piglets and preventing them from thriving.

" Far and away, PRRS has the most negative economic impact to pork producers from a disease standpoint," said Dave Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association.

Until now, farmers have been trying to control outbreaks but were unable to ward off future strains. They've focused on biosecurity and hygiene in a less than successful effort to prevent infection.

But "this vaccine we hope and we think will be a breakthrough that will allow that (eradication) to happen," said Mark Whitney, hog specialist for the U of M Extension Service.

The vaccine's developers, MJ Biologics, also are using the B-word.

President and CEO Bill Marks called it "one of the biggest breakthroughs" ever in swine medicine.

He gives all the credit to South Korean microbiologist Byoung-Kwan Kim, who hadn't before worked with pigs when he joined MJ Biologics in 2006.

" Biology is biology," whether it's pigs or humans, Kim said.

The company works with a University of Minnesota research team led by Han Soo Joo, who developed an improved vaccine creation technique.

Minnesota produces about 15 million hogs a year, Preisler said, with most of them coming from southern Minnesota. The top three counties in the state are Martin, Blue Earth and Nicollet, together producing almost 3.5 million pigs in 2007 and earning $448 million in gross income, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

A 2005 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that PRRS cost U.S. swine producers about $560 million.

Cheap, effective

Glen Sohre, a rural Beauford hog farmer, has been testing MJ Biologics' vaccine, called MJPRRS®, on his herd for about two years.

He's only had one "very minor" outbreak, when he was used to having problems just about every year.
Sohre is a contract farmer, meaning he gets paid for breeding healthy pigs. So the fact his sows have been producing more piglets ‹ each sow delivers an average of 26 piglets per year, up from 20 before the new vaccine -is a big deal.

And some of his fellow farmers have been dealing with a particularly nasty strain that kept their sows and piglets so sick they haven't been able to produce any pigs at all.

Marks, a former swine farmer, also touts the vaccination price of 40 cents per hog produced.

" If it's effective, that would be very price competitive," Preisler said.

The vaccine is injected into sows three or four times per year. Tests have shown that infected sows breed healthy piglets when given the vaccine, Marks said. More than 600,000 doses of the vaccine have been administered in the field.

The vaccine is now available through veterinarians.

It hasn't been widely discussed outside the veterinary community, and Whitney expects most hog farmers will begin learning about it over the next few weeks.

Group targeting

The key to the new vaccines is they target many different strains at once.

Kim's technique groups similar strains of the virus and targets them together. Each of the thousands of different strains tested so far falls into one North America's 16 groups or Europe's eight.

Currently, vaccines only target a single strain.

And even if that particular type of virus is killed, another will simply take its place. It's natural selection - kill one organism and it's only a matter of time before another will move in to exploit the resource, in this case a pig.

The new vaccine, Kim said, applies pressure to multiple strains at once, which can eradicate the disease entirely on a given farm.

But, like human vaccines, it can't be 100 percent effective.

That's because a vaccine is essentially a guess -no one knows for sure what strains will be predominant in a given herd.
Veterinarians, though, can make educated guesses by working with farmers to determine which strains they've seen, as well as others nearby farmers have seen.

Marks declined to give figures to show how effective the vaccine is, but said "it works very well."

U of M help

Kim's discovery wouldn't have been possible without Han Soo Joo's University of Minnesota team, which is funded by MJ Biologics.

Han Soo Joo's technique improved the method for creating the vaccine.

It's a complicated process, but the result is that more of the proteins, called antigens, are present in the vaccine.
Antigens stimulate an organism to produce antibodies that help the pig's immune system deal with the vaccine.

Kato lab makes good

The lab in which Kim worked isn't big, about 1,500 square feet, and is tucked away in the Technology Plus building in Mankato's Eastwood Industrial Park.

Marks marvels at the global impact that a privately funded lab started by former hog farmers and a researcher with no swine experience may create.

The disease now costs the industry more than $1 billion per year, he said.

Whitney, the Extension hog specialist, is optimistic as well. "It sounds like a solution that we may be able to eradicate the disease with."