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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Millions in Funding Moves AFB ‘Vaccine’ a Step Closer

The potential of an American foulbrood (AFB) preventative treatment or ‘vaccine’ for New Zealand beehives got another big step closer recently, with Dr Heather Hendrickson’s lab at the University of Canterbury (UC) awarded a share of almost $9 million to further their research into the use of bacteriophages to control AFB pathogens. What will it mean for the ABAtE (Active Bacteriophages for American Foulbrood Eradication) project? Who else will benefit? And when might beekeepers see a treatment available for their hives? We speak to Dr Hendrickson to find out.

Heather Hendrickson’s summers just got a little more interesting. When most of the students go on summer break, the senior lecturer can often be found whiling away at the laborious task of compiling funding applications to keep the Hendrickson Lab operating. It’s the dilemma of many a scientist in New Zealand – how to get others to see the value which they do in their projects, to a level where financial backing can make them a reality. Now, thanks to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) Endeavour Fund, the ABAtE project is secure for another five years, at least.

University of Canterbury microbiologist Dr Heather Hendrickson’s ABAtE project can progress their work into an AFB treatment knowing they have five years’ worth of funding ahead of them thanks to a recently-announced MBIE grant.

“In the immediate future, this is going to be about 75 percent of the work that happens in our laboratory. This is going to be a lot. So, I probably will not have to write grant applications this summer. Which is nice,” Hendrickson says with a chuckle.

It’s a laugh born out of relief. Up until this point the ABAtE project, which began in the Hendrickson Lab at Massey University in Albany, Auckland, in 2018 but relocated to UC in Christchurch in 2022, has survived on piecemeal funding to keep it afloat, from the likes of the Honey Industry Trust, AGMARDT and the Ministry for Primary Industries ‘SFFF’ fund.

The Hendrickson Lab is not the sole recipient of the $8,946,240 though. It was gained in collaboration with Professor Peter Fineran at University of Otago who will seek to develop phage biocontrols for Psa in kiwifruit. Projects to tackle viruses effecting cherries and salmon farming are also in the five-year pipeline. While those four primary industries, including apiculture, are the benefactors of the research focus for now, the funding allows for the establishment of a “phage manufacturing bioindustry in Aotearoa New Zealand” according to a UC press release. It also points to a future where they are “ideally positioned to pivot towards emerging threats to food production, and even medically-relevant human pathogens”.

Bacteriophages (aka phages) are the most numerous entity on the planet and the heroes of the work, or “nature’s ninjas” as Hendrickson has long dubbed them. These tiny phages are viruses which attach themselves to bacteria before eliminating their host. Infection can produce 100s of copies of the phage, each of which is able to go on and repeat this process.

Danielle Kok spent her PhD working on the ABAtE project and newly acquired funding means she will return to the Hendrickson Lab as a post-doctoral research fellow in 2024 to continue the search for an AFB ‘vaccine’.

Bacteriophages are generally highly specific to the bacterial hosts they target. For this reason, much of the work of the ABAtE project thus far has focused on collecting phages from around New Zealand that were specific to the AFB pathogen paenibacillus larvae. Beekeepers were called on to submit soil samples from apiaries and beehive materials. With 100s of samples submitted thus far, PhD student Danielle Kok worked to identify the phages which target the strains of p. larvae known in New Zealand, and to formulate a cocktail of those phages. The funding will allow Kok to return to the lab in a post-doctoral role and continue formulation of the cocktail.

“Danielle’s goal will primarily be to get these phages to the point where there are the perfect phages to put into cocktails, and we have a perfect, or as close as possible to a perfect, understanding of how they're going to work. That is, how the honeybee larvae are going to interact with the phages,” Hendrickson explains.

“One of the big issues is going to be how do we grow large concentrations of pure phages so that we have enough to scale up and then making sure that they're stable once you put them out in the environment?”

Following that step, trials in both lab and field could take place. That is not likely to be until the later years of the five-year project though, with Fineran’s Psa-targeting phages planned to be released to kiwifruit orchards first.

“What's nice about this platform is that whatever they learn from doing the scale up and field trials in the orchards, then we can apply to the apiculture phages as they come through and are ready for that step. It will speed things up.”

It is hoped that a suitable location for a “natural” field trial might be found at the appropriate time, whereby beehives in proximity to known AFB cases can be treated and the results assessed. Alternately “blind” field trials could be used on a larger scale, where thousands of hives are treated and compared against the same amount which are untreated. The level of protection would then be assessed.

“We have partners who are willing to help us if we get to that point of huge field trials, but if we can do the natural experiment it will significantly decrease the amount of hives we need to work with in the first instances. There are a lot of questions we have about adding these phages to hives, such as if they remain otherwise healthy, if they keep making as much honey as they would otherwise, things that beekeepers are going to want to know. We now have this money so that we can do those tests and get this up to the point where we can keep our promises to the beekeepers and actually produce a cocktail that we know is safe and effective,” Hendrickson says.

A bacteriophage as seen through a transmission electron micrograph. This phage targets paenibacillus larvae and was discovered by the ABAtE team.

Those trials are years of work in the lab away though, and in the immediate afterglow of the funding boon, Hendrickson is just thankful to be able to extend work she believes has a good chance of bringing significant benefit to food production and even, potentially, the fight against medically-relevant human pathogens. Having seen her former employer, Massey University, hit troubled financial times and many former co-workers laid off recently, the MBIE funding is an even greater relief the microbiologist says.

“The whole university system is a little shaky at the moment and watching my former department fall over and not be supported by the university is very startling. I just feel very lucky in a lot of ways.”

Its luck born out of years of graft though and she is motivated to make sure that continues at the lab, so that beekeepers have every chance to see the benefit. Whenever that might be.

“The thing that really grounded me after finding out that we got the funding is, we started talking to the beekeepers four or five years ago and they were so willing to send us samples, and to make sure that we have what we needed. It's such a welcoming community and it's been such a great space to start working in,” Hendrickson says, adding “This money allows us to keep our promises to the beekeepers, and to make good on all of the help that they've given us to get to this point”.


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