IBT director assists in first-ever approved DNA therapy for food animals

January 18, 2008

(HOUSTON) — Robert Schwartz, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M Health Science Center Institute of Biosciences and Technology, has assisted in the development of a unique gene therapy recently approved for animals in Australia – the world’s first and only approved DNA therapy for food animals.

As colleagues at the Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Schwartz and Ruxandra Draghia-Akli, M.D., Ph.D., developed the intellectual property (with 10 issued patents) and were co-founders of ADViSYS, Inc. This company developed a powerful new gene therapeutic technology to drive the expression of growth-hormone releasing hormone (GHRH) in newborn piglets.

Since that time, Dr. Schwartz came to the HSC, and Dr. Draghia-Akli became vice president of VGX Animal Health, Inc. The two have spent the past decade maturing and fully testing the technology, with assistance from Fuller Bazer, Ph.D., associate vice president for Research at Texas A&M University.

The research included studies evaluating GHRH-treated piglets for improved growth rates, feed efficiency and meat quality. Dr. Draghia-Akli discovered that GHRH gene therapy in pregnant sows could indirectly influence the survivorship, growth rate and feed efficiency of piglets by having elevated levels of expressed GHRH in the sows’ blood system and milk.

Based on research results in Australia, VGX Animal Health, Inc. has announced approval by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority of the use of GHRH gene therapy in animals – the first approval of gene therapy by any country.

“It validates our technology, and it’s the first real step in preventing worldwide hunger by increasing the amounts of available dietary protein,” said Dr. Schwartz, who has no financial interest in VGX Animal Health, Inc. “I am absolutely delighted that we might be able to make a difference one day in the quality of life of people worldwide by improving their nutrition and survivorship.”

Therapy applications have been filed in New Zealand, with future plans for Southeast Asia countries like The Philippines and Indonesia. VGX Animal Health, Inc. has begun studies to support regulatory approval in the United States, China and other major markets.

In fact, thanks to the work by Dr. Schwartz and his colleagues, VGX Pharmaceuticals expects to file an investigational new drug (IND) application for the human version of GHRH as a therapy for treating cachexia (wasting or heavy weight loss) in cancer patients early this year.

The Texas A&M Health Science Center provides the state with health education, outreach and research. Its six colleges located in communities throughout Texas are Baylor College of Dentistry, the College of Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Institute of Biosciences and Technology, the Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, and the School of Rural Public Health.

— Marketing & Communications