Some pig: USDA, Codagenix target swine flu

Piggy bank: USDA funding to research a potential swine flu vaccine could speed Codagenix products to market.

By GREGORY ZELLER //

With Zika virus, Foot and Mouth Disease and other global threats already in its crosshairs, Farmingdale biotech Codagenix Inc. is challenging another high-profile opponent: swine flu.

A Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund research and development of an influenza vaccine for swine using Codagenix’s proprietary software platform, which “re-codes” viruses to create and test potential vaccines.

Research and development under the $99,710 SBIR grant is expected to begin immediately, with uniquely constructed vaccine strains ready for field tests within 18 months, according to Codagenix cofounder and COO J. Robert Coleman.

Coleman (left) and Mueller: When pigs fly.

Coleman (left) and Mueller: When pigs fly.

The creation of a “highly cross-protective, live-attenuated swine influenza vaccine” serves two primary purposes, Coleman noted: reducing the use of antibiotics in swine livestock and preventing the kind of economic disaster that befell the U.S. pork industry in 2009, when global fears over a swine flu pandemic sent domestic producers reeling.

The pandemic seven years ago actually involved the H1N1 influenza virus, a “reassortment” (a mixing of a species’ genetic material into new combinations) of bird, swine and human flus combined with a pig influenza common to Eurasia – hence, the porky handle, which is a scientific misnomer.

Despite that dubious connection to swine and repeated affirmations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and other international food organizations that pigs were safe to eat and not to blame for the influenza pandemic, pork futures tanked.

Egypt famously slaughtered its entire national pork stock – some 300,000 animals, raised and consumed by the Muslim country’s Christian minority – while major international consumers China, Russia and South Korea banned pork shipments from California, Texas and Kansas, along with shipments from Mexico, where legend says the outbreak began.

Coleman noted an industry-buster that, at its apex, cost U.S. pork producers upwards of $5 million per day.

“The goal of the vaccine is to safeguard against the economic impact of swine influenza on the swine industry,” the COO said. “And importantly, to reduce the use of antibiotics in swine.”

That antibiotic-reduction benefit could be a long-term public-health boon. Considering Codagenix’s pre-clinical success developing an influenza vaccine for human testing, confidence is high the company’s vaccine-development platform can be leveraged to construct a vaccine that protects livestock against current and future swine-flu mutations – reducing the need for subsequent innoculations.

“Current commercial swine influenza vaccines still use an inactivated virus, akin to the ‘flu-shot’ used for people,” noted Codagenix cofounder Steffen Mueller, the company’s president and chief scientific officer. “Using an inactivated virus requires continual vaccine updating each season and, as we know, this leads to strain-mismatching and low efficacy.

“Our goal is to make a vaccine that won’t require updating each year,” Mueller added. “Rather, one that can provide multi-season protection.”

The SBIR program is a highly competitive grant program that funds R&D at small U.S. businesses, with emphasis on commercialization of innovative technologies. That innovation focus makes Codagenix – which launched in 2012 and was a resident of Stony Brook University’s Long Island High-Technology Incubator before its recent move to Farmingdale State College’s Broad Hollow Bioscience Park – the ideal grant recipient, according to U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Massapequa Park).

“Codagenix’s next-generation approach to making vaccines is exactly the kind of technology the SBIR program is designed to support,” King said in a statement. “There is clearly a need for vaccines to protect both our public health and economic interests.”

The nearly $100,000 Phase I stipend is the latest capital affirmation of Codagenix’s promising software platform.

In 2014, the startup was among the first companies to receive a combined $100,000 investment from regional business booster Accelerate Long Island and the Long Island Emerging Technologies Fund, a venture vehicle powered by Setauket investment firm Jove Equity Partners and Roslyn’s Topspin Fund. That seed-funding was followed by a $2 million buy-in by Topspin Partners.

Prior to those investments, Codagenix landed roughly $1.9 million in National Institutes of Health grants; it subsequently shared a $100,000 USDA grant with the Plum Island Animal Disease Center for the development of a Foot and Mouth vaccine.

With those human influenza trials looming later this year, Codagenix now adds swine flu to its government-funded target list – a win for both the $22.5 billion domestic pork industry and the Farmingdale biotech’s investors, according to its COO.

“Commercially, we’re excited to expand into the agriculture space,” Coleman said. “It’s a quicker path to market, as compared to producing vaccines for human diseases.”