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Jason Clark, right, shares the stage with, from left, Øystein Lie of NASF, Kristoffer Jordheim of Pareto Securities, and Tanja Hoel of NCE Seafood Innovation Cluster.
Jason Clark, right, shares the stage with, from left, Øystein Lie of NASF, Kristoffer Jordheim of Pareto Securities, and Tanja Hoel of NCE Seafood Innovation Cluster.

A Scottish company that has developed a way to use a natural alternative to chemical antibiotics to combat aquaculture health challenges has won the innovation award at the world’s biggest seafood conference.

New uses for an old discovery

Bacteriophages (or phages) are viruses which will only infect and kill bacteria and are completely harmless to plants, animals and humans. They are the most numerous organisms on the planet and it is estimated there are 100 times as many phages in the human body as there are human cells.

Phages were first identified over 100 years ago and their ability to very specifically infect and kill bacteria led to the suggestion that they could be used for the treatment of disease, but the discovery and wide-scale industrial production of small-molecule chemical antibiotics (such as penicillin) essentially eliminated their use in the West.

The main exception to this was in the former Soviet Union and annexed territories, particularly in Georgia where the Eliava Institute has been using phage therapy successfully for almost 100 years, and in Poland where the Hirszfeld Institute has been using phage therapeutically for several decades.

Phages have some features which have prevented their wide-spread application. Most notably they can lack stability and therefore often need to be stored at 4°C and, as naturally occurring organisms, they are difficult to protect by traditional intellectual property, making their commercial development more difficult.

Glasgow-based Fixed Phage was chosen from 18 companies contesting the award at Seafood Innovation Day at the North Atlantic Seafood Forum (NASF) in Bergen, Norway.

The company uses naturally-occurring bacteriophages – known simply as phages – to combat specific bacterial strains in agriculture, health, food and aquaculture.

Phages were first identified more than 100 years ago, but their lack of stability – often requiring them to be stored at 4°C – has been a barrier to practical applications.

Salmonid treatments

Fixed Phage has developed methods of irreversibly attaching phages to feed pellets, providing a product that is stable at ambient temperatures. It has a number of treatments for bacterial infections in aquaculture in development, including for flavobacterial infections in salmonids.

The innovation award winner was selected by an audience vote together with a professional jury. The award has a value of NOK 250,000 (£23,000) and comprises financial advice from Pareto, legal advice from Thommessen, participation in next year's North Atlantic Seafood Forum, membership of the NCE Seafood Innovation Cluster and a cash amount.

The jury stated: “The winner has developed an innovative product that addresses many of the major challenges of contemporary seafood production, like food safety, fighting antibiotic resistance and feed efficiency.

Huge potential

“The market potential is huge, and the winner has a product that is easily scalable and has also an operational plan for market penetration and commercialisation in near future.

“The winner is addressing challenges that we are facing for developing of a sustainable seafood industry, and the product itself is environmental friendly.”

The company’s chief scientific officer, Jason Clark, said: “The three categories that they were judging on were innovation, market potential and sustainability, and I was quite surprised to win, because it was a pretty strong field, including a couple of Silicon Valley start-ups from the US.

“I think what we had [in our favour] is that we were slightly more advanced, but also the link between the technology and the product was quite clear. The clear route to market was one of the deciding factors.”

Two years before product reaches market

Clark said that although Fixed Phage was more advanced in its development than the other companies it the competition, it would probably be two years before it got its first product – likely to be for aquaculture - to market in Europe because of the time taken to gain regulatory approval.

“The technology is starting to get quite well proven, we know it works, and we can identify the market and the market need, but there is still the regulatory pathway to get through. That is not necessarily particularly tricky, but it is quite time-consuming.”

He said it was possible the product would be available in the US earlier, in around one year, because of the country’s faster regulatory process.

Clark explained that the company views phages attached to aquafeed as a probiotic designed to prevent infection, rather than as something used to treat it. 

The company is also looking at attaching phages to packaging for fish to target food spoilage organisms and extend shelf-life. Clark said this would work best with vacuum-packed products as it would allow the phages optimal contact with the food.