Mazen Animal Health to set up R&D center in North Carolina

Mazen's lead product candidate is a vaccine against porcine epidemic diarrhea virus.

January 6, 2023

4 Min Read
Nursery pigs (1).jpg
National Pork Board

Mazen Animal Health, an Iowa start-up company that's developing corn-based oral vaccines for animals, has selected North Carolina as the home for its research and development center. The company will lease office, lab and greenhouse space in either Durham or Research Triangle Park in early 2023, said Jennifer Filbey, Ph.D., Mazen's chief executive officer and co-founder.

"I think (the Research Triangle area) is a great place to put our R&D," said Filbey, who is familiar with the region from having previously lived and worked in it. "I can't say enough good things about the atmosphere there, the support and the entrepreneurial spirit."

Mazen recently hired a leader and two scientists to work at the R&D site, with more to be added this year, Filbey said.

Tracy Raines, Ph.D., a local scientist and executive with start-up experience in agricultural biotechnology, was named vice president of R&D. In addition to her work in plant molecular biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned her doctorate and was a postdoctoral researcher, Raines led or supported R&D programs at three ag biotech companies in the Research Triangle region: Paradigm Genetics, Athenix and AgBiome.

When Mazen secured Raines for the job, "it was a no brainer to set up (R&D operations) in North Carolina," Filbey said.

Raines already has hired two scientists – a biochemist and a plant-transformation scientist – who just started working, bringing the company's total staff count to 10.

"We’ve already established a super team, and we'll be growing it," Filbey said. "As we grow, we'll also be looking for space for our nursery or pilot fields. We're putting down a footprint in North Carolina."

That footprint is financed by a Series A round of venture capital that netted Mazen over $11 million in 2022. The round was led by Fall Line Capital and joined by all of the earlier seed-stage investors, including Next Level Ventures, Kent Corporation, Ag Startup Engine, Ag Ventures Alliance, ISAV and Summit Ag. Several new investors, AgFunder, 1330 Investments, Addison Laboratories, SLO Seeds Ventures and Cal Poly Ventures, also participated in the financing.

"We're excited that Mazen Animal Health will be expanding its R&D operations in the state," said Paul Ulanch, Ph.D., MBA, executive director of the crop commercialization program at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. "Both crop science and animal health are strengths in the state's ag tech ecosystem, and Mazen is in both. The company's science is to leverage corn as a feed-delivery system of antigens. This in turn will improve the health of production animals that are important for North Carolina's agricultural economy."

Ulanch noted that Filbey presented at the 4th Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase program, organized by the Biotech Center in 2016, and that NCBiotech staff have communicated with her ever since about resources in North Carolina that could help Mazen. 

Mazen's oral vaccines are produced in corn plants using recombinant DNA technology drawn from years of research led by John Howard, Ph.D., Mazen's co-founder and an expert in recombinant protein production in plants.

Genes coding for the production of antigens – the proteins that give vaccines their protective power against infectious diseases – are inserted in the corn plant's cells. The antigens are expressed in the germplasm within the corn's kernels.

The vaccine-laden corn is ground, dried and blended with regular feed corn to the desired dose, and then fed to animals. Giving oral vaccines to livestock and companion animals offers several advantages when compared to the standard practice of manually injecting vaccines using syringes.

There is no stress to the animal, no risk of broken needles in animals and no accidental jabs to technicians. Cold-chain handling and storage of vaccines is not required, and less labor is involved, saving time and money.

As it makes its way through an animal's digestive tract, the vaccine antigen is released gradually, stimulating the production of neutralizing antibodies – a protective response to infection – in both the mucosal immune system and the systemic immune system, Filbey said. That dual mode of action can provide greater efficacy than injected vaccines, which stimulate only the systemic immune system.

Corn is well suited for time-release vaccine delivery because it contains carbohydrates and enzyme inhibitors that protect vaccine antigens from degrading too quickly in the digestive tract, Filbey said.

Mazen's lead product candidate is a vaccine against porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, a coronavirus that infects the small intestines of pigs, causing severe diarrhea and dehydration. PEDV is highly contagious and can wipe out herds of newborn piglets and slow down weight gain in sows.

Mazen is conducting efficacy studies of the vaccine in preparation for regulatory approval and product launch. The company plans to grow the vaccine in "several hundred acres" of transgenic corn in California's San Joaquin Valley this year, Filbey said.

The corn will be shipped to a manufacturing facility that Mazen is buying in Illinois, where it will be processed, blended and bagged into corn feed for distribution to farms.

Other products in Mazen's development pipeline include vaccines for porcine circovirus, coccidiosis and salmonella in poultry, rabies and valley fever in dogs, and an undisclosed product being developed in collaboration with Elanco Animal Health, the global farm animal and pet health company based in Indiana.

That product development work will now be done in North Carolina.

"We are just super excited to be establishing R&D in North Carolina," Filbey said. "It's a great environment to be in."

Source: North Carolina Biotechnology Center

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