CAES is partnering with Dalan Animal Health to develop the world’s first honey bee vaccine

Researchers at the UGA Bee Lab study hives. Delaplane says honey bee vaccines will be a game-changer for beekeepers who have had few resources outside of supportive treatments for decades. (Photo: Keith Delaplane)

Vaccines are a proven benefit in the world of animal science. People have been vaccinating both pets and livestock for decades.

Beekeepers will soon be able to protect their colonies through vaccination. The University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) and Dalan Animal Health have teamed up to develop the world’s first honey bee vaccine.

“You don’t have to look far to see that honey bees are in a lot of trouble right now. Keith Delaplane, a professor in CAES’s Department of Entomology and director of the UGA Bee Program, said hives will die if you don’t intercede with valiant efforts.

He wasn’t sure what the first meeting with Dalan, created by the Athens-Clarke County Department of Economic Development, would be, but Delaplane is proud of the company’s arrival in Athens and UGA.

“The timing is right to come to our college,” Delaplane said.

Dalan co-founder and CEO Annette Kleiser built the company in a virtual format to optimize the creativity of a team of experts located around the world. While the virtual model works for their team, Kleiser acknowledged the need for a “home base” for the company — labs, offices and a place for development.

“We looked at everything we wanted to have for an insect health company,” Kleiser said. “We wanted a world-class university with access to talent, an understanding of animal vaccines, a focus on agriculture and sustainable agriculture, and a veterinary school with a bee lab.”

Kleiser added that the company also needed a climate where research could be active nine months of the year, and ideally an entrepreneurial culture. Proximity to Atlanta to serve a global product with a global program was an added advantage.

“We made this wish list and Athens, Georgia was on it,” Kleiser said. “We visited and met with the economic development people and they introduced us to a lot of people, including Keith. We saw passion for what we were doing – there was alignment.

Those initial meetings were attended by Chris Rhodes, director of industry partnerships and project-based learning at CAES. Rhodes noted that while sponsored research is not a new concept, Dalan sponsors research to create new industries and is a tenant of the UGA Innovation District.

“Dalan is the first tenant to work with CAES researchers like this,” Rhodes said. “That’s why we have an Innovation District, which provides a home for innovative companies working with faculty and students on groundbreaking commercial solutions.”

Kleiser, who works with a number of technology transfer offices at universities in the U.S. and internationally, said UGA’s willingness to work with the private sector has drawn attention.

“I was very surprised. Being at the center, the invitation to put the company in the accelerator made it very easy,” he said. “I have not come across a university innovation space that invites a private company. The pleasant environment and the ability to quickly find a solution was a big surprise and a big plus.”

A close-up photo of a dozen honeybees, including one with a pale green dot on its head.
The current research project calls for feeding the queen bees with Dalan’s special vaccine, after which the inoculated queen will produce worker bees that are immune to this pathogen for the rest of her life. (Photo courtesy of Dalan Animal Health)

Depending on the Queen

How to vaccinate a honey bee? It will not fall into small syringes. The study focused on a different delivery method: candy for the queen.

According to Delaplan, hereditary immunity consists in the inclusion of fragments of bacterial cells in the queen’s eggs. The egg contains an antigen, which in turn creates and promotes an immune response. The current project calls for feeding the queen bees with Dalan’s special vaccine, after which the inoculated queen will produce worker bees that are immune to this pathogen for the rest of their lives.

“In a perfect scenario, the queens could be fed a cocktail inside the queen candy—a soft, doughy sugar that queens eat during transit,” Delaplane said. “Queen breeders can advertise ‘fully vaccinated queen bees’.”

There is also some evidence that inoculated worker bees can pass on immunity to their siblings. As they age, Delaplan said, bees go through a series of predictable tasks — cleaning cells, feeding larvae, processing honey, foraging and protecting the nest. If the inoculated nurse bee feeds on her larval siblings, this can give them immunity. He likened this relationship to the mother-infant relationship of lactating mammals, where immune benefits are passed on through breast milk.

Solving the global bee pandemic

According to Kleiser, the diseases observed in beekeeping today are global pandemics. Bees are shipped all over the world and although strict measures are taken to prevent their spread, they cannot be prevented.

“This thing with Keith is really important. One of the reasons is that this business is very new,” said Kleiser. “There are no instructions, no manuals. Together with Keith, we are developing what will be the gold standard for these tests. This is really interesting; is the first of its kind. When you contact regulators going forward, this is what they will look for.

The team is currently working on one of the deadliest bacterial diseases, American foulbrood (AFB), Delaplane said. After success with a vaccine against a bacterial disease, he turned his attention to a more complex problem – fighting viruses that can easily destroy hives.

“While it is more difficult to create heritable immunity with viruses, viruses are front and center in all the literature on bee health issues,” he said. “They have proven to be an insurmountable problem – hopefully this partnership can lead to a viral vaccine.”

For Dalan, the partnership with UGA brought another benefit: access to students and alumni.

“There’s a real opportunity for internships here,” Kleiser said. “We have already appealed to the students; we saw the initiative. This is different from an opportunity at a zoo or botanical garden. There’s a biotech company that works with these unique animals, and we’re a very young company that allows for creativity.”

Kleiser is excited not only to work with students in practice, but also to offer a new, global perspective when considering life after college.

“When students have ideas, they need to know that it’s possible to turn them into reality,” she said. “They need encouragement — and the excitement is there — that it’s possible.”

Placing insect health on the map

“People don’t realize how hard it is to keep bees alive,” Delaplan said. “I can’t think of a scarier area of ​​agriculture. It requires constant attention.”

Once released, Delaplan added, these vaccines will be game-changers for beekeepers who have had few resources other than supportive treatments for decades.

“We’re putting insect health on the map,” Kleiser said. “It will have a huge impact not only on what we learn, but on opportunities for students and jobs that don’t currently exist.”

While the potential benefits are concrete, the timelines—especially for a brand new, first-in-class regulatory vaccine—are murkier. According to Kleiser, Dalan is in the final stages of the approval process to receive a conditional license from the USDA’s Center for Veterinary Biology (CVB).

“It was important for us to develop (honey bee vaccine) as an animal vaccine that is regulated by the USDA-CVB, like a chicken, swine or cattle vaccine; they oversee the approval of vaccines for animals,” he said. “Once the vaccine is bottled, the final steps in the detailed inspection process are confirmatory testing by CVB labs for purity, etc. Although CVB is identified, the timing is difficult to predict. It is highly adaptive and flexible in our presentations when going through the registration process for this new product.

The team is preparing for this release ahead of the upcoming 2023 honey bee season.

To learn more about the UGA Bee Program, visit bees.caes.uga.edu. For project updates on AFB vaccination for honey bees, visit dalan.com.

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