The East Anglian firm whose scientific breakthrough could beat one of the world's most devastating diseases
PUBLISHED: 10:24 28 September 2018 | UPDATED: 11:09 03 October 2018
A bovine TB test developed by a Suffolk firm looks set to be a game-changer in the battle against a disease which has plagued livestock herds all over the world and shows little sign of abating.
The notifiable disease has been rife in the west of the country – with TB-infected badgers blamed by some for the continuing problem - as well as in many other parts of the world.
But Dr Berwyn Clarke, chief executive of start-up firm PBD Biotech, based at Thurston, near Bury St Edmunds, believes the issue is not the badger - which has been the subject of a controversial UK government-organised cull over the last few years - but rather that the disease lies undiscovered in herds until it’s too late, because of the lack of a reliable test for it.
Suffolk firm creates fast and accurate test
Or at least until now. Dr Clarke and a team at Nottingham university have worked on transforming a much older human diagnostic technology into a product which can be used on livestock and come up with a fast and accurate test result.
They have succeeded and they are now, with investors in place, ramping up the process of getting it to market.
“It’s a real game-changer - it’s unusual to find such a game-changer where there’s a massive gap in the global market,” says Dr Clarke. “There’s no competition to speak of, and it’s ready to go, so it’s quite unusual.”
Global interest in Suffolk firm’s bovine TB test
Their Actiphage product is attracting interest from all over the world - and for good reason. In the UK alone, bovine TB has led to the slaughter of around 30,000 cattle and cost UK taxpayers more than £100m. Globally, it’s a multi-billion pound problem.
Bovine TB is one of a group of diseases (which also includes leprosy) caused by mycobacteria, which has devastated the agricultural industry worldwide. The Actiphage test, which detects live mycobacteria, can be used on blood or milk, and can also test for Johne’s disease. It has potential to be used for other livestock diseases as well.
“One of the beauties of our technology is you can use them to detect any of them,” said Dr Clarke.
PBD secures crucial investment boost
Earlier this year, the firm secured £400K in its first major strategic investment round to fund international trials and launch a suite of products.
It is establishing a Canadian subsidiary in Saskatoon, thanks to funding from New Anglia Capital, a co-investment fund managed by New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) in partnership with Anglia Capital Group which brings angel investors together to kick-start new products and innovative ideas.
There is interest from South America and around the world, but validation processes to go through in each country.
Hurdles still to overcome
It still has hurdles to overcome here with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), but the test has been accepted for “exceptional private use” in England, according to an Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) protocol published in May of this year. This is significant, because it has meant that a Devonshire dairy farmer, who had previously despaired of ever getting on top of the disease and being able to function properly again, has worked in conjunction with his vet to eradicate the disease. In the course of that journey, they found the disease was still lurking in cattle previously considered free of it and have been able to work through the herd with the aim of wiping it out for good.
Test ‘could wipe out bovine TB from UK herds’
Dr Clarke hopes the product will be adopted as a pre-movement test, and believes it would be possible to wipe out TB completely in the UK, but progress in getting appropriate approvals here to ramp things up has been frustratingly slow. However, the firm is getting “serious interest” from UK milk testing laboratories.
Exciting future for Suffolk biotech start-up
Dr Clarke has a long history in the biotech field. He has a PhD in medical genetics, has worked on vaccines and antivirals, and has also worked for pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome. He moved into the diagnostics industry, setting up a company in Cambridge in 2005, Lab21, and is a board member of three other biotech firms. He believes the potential of Actiphage is “huge” and “really exciting”.
“We are fully commercial now. We are in the phase of application development. We have commercial kits which are available for a variety of different indications and now we are looking at specific applications for example the application of the technology for other animals - it’s massive,” he says. “Manufacturing we can do. We can manufacture enough samples for the entire world from the UK. It’s the customer adoption phase we are in now.”