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Phages attacking a bacterium. Phages are estimated to kill off half the bacteria in the world every day, keeping nature in balance.
Phages attacking a bacterium. Phages are estimated to kill off half the bacteria in the world every day, keeping nature in balance.

Feed producer Skretting has announced a collaboration with Proteon Pharmaceuticals to co-develop products using bacteriophage technology to support fish farmers as part of a holistic health strategy.

The companies predict that the technology will become a valuable component of integrated management strategies on-farm with both feed and water applications under investigation.

Phages are viruses that target specific bacteria, helping to keep nature in balance. They have been known about for more than 100 years and have been used to treat bacterial infections in humans, particularly in eastern Europe, where for many years antibiotics were not as readily available as in the West.

Controlled delivery of phages, using precision biological tools promises to reduce antibiotic usage, overcoming the growing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria, as well as to increase sustainability in aquaculture and agriculture and to improve human health.

Matthew Tebeau:
Matthew Tebeau: "An exciting development."

Specific targets

Proteon, a leader in the field, is based in Łódź, Poland. The company’s chief executive, Matthew Tebeau, said: “Using phage technology for aquaculture is an exciting development. With Proteon’s expertise in phage development and Skretting’s expertise in health, we will work together to identify phages that will target specific bacteria, which we hope will significantly reduce these health challenges for farmers.”

In the initial phases of the project, Skretting will isolate the most prevalent specific strains of bacteria, while Proteon will determine the most effective complementary groups of phages. Skretting Aquaculture Research Centre (ARC) researchers will then examine the efficacy of the phages during challenge trials.

The project timeline is around 4-5 years, but both Skretting and Proteon Pharmaceuticals are confident that the resultant health solutions are worth the wait, the companies said in a press release. With anti-microbial resistance (AMR) still looming as a serious threat facing the global population, natural health strategies are increasingly important for food producing industries.

Truls Dahl:
Truls Dahl: "The use of phages is still quite new for aquaculture."

Effective tool

“Products based on bacteriophages are an effective tool for fighting bacterial diseases in farmed fish and shrimp, as they can eliminate only the specific pathogenic bacteria while not damaging the animal’s microbiome,” said Truls Dahl, business developer at Skretting.

“Having alternatives to antibiotics to support the health of fish and shrimp is a very exciting part of the development. Vaccines, antibiotics and indeed phage technologies have been around for a long time, but the use of phages is still quite new for aquaculture.”

“It’s not every day you introduce a new technology to improve animal health,” said Skretting chief executive Therese Log Bergjord. “This is a milestone and highlights our commitment to continue to invest in health research for the sustainability of the aquaculture industry as a whole.”

Suppressing Yersinia

Skretting is not the only company investigating the use of phages.

Norwegian aquaculture pharmaceuticals, biosecurity and specialist feed company STIM markets a phage-based product, CUSTUS YRS, used to control Yersinia bacteria in bio-filters, well boats and production water and prevent outbreaks of yersiniosis.

The additive contains five hundred thousand billion Yersinia-killing phages per litre. As these are added in high density to production water or bio-filters an upper limit for the concentration of Yersinia ruckeri that can possibly prevail in the water is quickly established.

The product is currently only available in Norway, but work is under way to make it available in Scotland, Chile and other salmon producing countries.

Improving outcomes

In Scotland, Glasgow-based start-up Fixed Phage has developed technology to adapt and attach phages to packaging and feeds without the phages dying. The company says feeds coated with its aquaPHIX solutions have been shown to sustainably produce significantly improved outcomes. Examples include early mortality syndrome (EMS) in shrimp.

Fixed Phage is engaged in field trials with leading commercial partners to expedite commercialisation.