GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A North Dakota company that discovered an antibody technology while trying to cure flocks of dying geese is using its research for a more warm and fuzzy purpose: saving puppies.
Early tests performed on about 50 puppies in seven states for Grand Forks-based Avianax have resulted in a 90 percent cure rate for canine parvovirus, which spreads through animal waste and direct contact between dogs, usually at kennels, shelters and shows. Some puppies die from the virus and others are euthanized because the antibiotics and other medicine needed to treat it can be too expensive — sometimes up to $2,000 — and take too long.
It isn't clear how many dogs contract parvo annually, since the disease isn't required to be reported. At the Kansas City Pet Project, one of eight test sites and among the largest shelters in the United States, about five cases a month wind up on the "parvo ward." Officials with the Missouri shelter believe the treatment will lead to a dramatic increase in their "parvo graduates."
"When the box arrived we were yelling, 'Woo, the geese antibodies are here!'" shelter spokeswoman Tori Fugate said. "Just the fact that someone is caring out there is pretty remarkable. A lot of open admission shelters choose to not treat parvo because it's considered too much of a resource."
Avianax chief operating officer Richard Glynn hopes to start selling the parvoONE antibody-based treatment — that is, harvested from the yokes of goose eggs — for $75 a dose by next spring.
"I think there will be a lot of puppy owners who will be very happy," Glynn said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a conditional permit for the field trials that are taking place in sites in Missouri, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Texas, North Carolina and Arizona. Such permits are normally reserved for outbreaks or other dire situations, but this one passed muster because there's no product specifically targeted for parvovirus, said Jeremy Vrchota, Avianax's sales director and regulatory liaison.
Officials with the USDA's Animal and Plant Inspection Service did not respond to phone messages left by The Associated Press.
The company's path to puppy love began a decade ago after a mysterious disease — later found to be West Nile virus — spread among flocks at the South Dakota-based Schiltz Goose Farm, the largest goose producer in North America. Farm owners James and Richard Schiltz and Glynn, who was working for them, found researchers at the University of North Dakota who were interested in the project.
The group, led by Dr. David Bradley, the UND medical school's chair of microbiology and immunization, discovered antibodies in the geese that they could purify and put back into other birds. The treatment worked.
"We went to the Mayo Clinic and they looked at all our work," Glynn said. "They called it a game-changing technology."
Avianax quickly found promising links between goose antibodies and treatments for other diseases, including rabies, dengue fever, avian flu and some cancers. Because they didn't have the money or time to explore testing for human diseases, the group set their sights on the veterinary market and eventually settled on saving puppies.
Treating parvovirus currently can cost, at a minimum, $500 for antibiotics, intravenous fluids, painkillers and stomach medicine and generally takes six days, said Dr. Darin Meulebroeck, chief medical officer for Avianax. The trials have shown the new drug can work quickly as two days, he said.
"We've lost a couple that have been so severe ... there's no drug that is going to treat 100 percent of everything," Meulebroeck said.
The tests run through November.
Glynn said Avianax has "stuck in there" with the help of key researchers and believes it is on the verge of saving human lives with a similar antibody— although it could take more than five years to reach the market. The U.S. Army is interested in using the technology for Andres virus, which has been found to lead to a fatal respiratory disease. Safety trials are scheduled in the next two years.
"We went from being goose herders from South Dakota to an antibody company," Glynn said. "And we're not done yet."