First-ever insect vaccine helps bees stay healthy

The easily administered oral vaccine could keep pollinators safe from bacterial diseases and give invaluable support for food production worldwide.

Food and pollination services are important for everyone: humans, production animals and wildlife alike. Inventing something that guards against pollinator losses will have a tremendous impact.

The Dalan AH oral vaccine, previously called PrimeBEE, is the first-ever vaccine for honey bees and other pollinators. It fights severe microbial diseases that can be detrimental to pollinator communities. The invention is the fruit of research carried out by two former scientists in the University of Helsinki, Dalial Freitak and Heli Salmela.

The basis of the innovation is quite simple. When the queen bee eats something with pathogens in it, the pathogen signature molecules are bound by vitellogenin. Vitellogenin then carries these signature molecules into the queen’s eggs, where they work as inducers for future immune responses.

Before this, no-one had thought that insect vaccination could be possible at all. That is because the insect immune system, although rather similar to the mammalian system, lacks one of the central mechanisms for immunological memory – antibodies.

“Now we’ve discovered the mechanism to show that you can actually vaccinate them. You can transfer a signal from one generation to another,” Dalial Freitak, researcher and now the CSO of Dalan Animal Health, says.

From moths to honey bees

Dalial Freitak has been working with insects and the immune system throughout her career. Starting with moths, she noticed that if the parental generation is exposed to certain bacteria via their food, their offspring show elevated immune responses.

“So they could actually convey something by eating. I just didn’t know what the mechanism was. At the time, as I started my post-doc work in Helsinki, I met with Heli Salmela, who was working on honeybees and a protein called vitellogenin. I heard her talk and I was like: OK, I could make a bet that it is your protein that takes my signal from one generation to another. We started to collaborate, got funding from the Academy of Finland, and that was actually the beginning of our oral vaccine for bees,” Dalial Freitak explains.

Future plans: vaccinating commercially used pollinators against any microbe

Dalial Freitak and Dalan Animal Health are the pioneers in a totally new animal health sector.

“I sincerely believe it is about time we start caring about our six-legged companions, whose work and contributions to our wellbeing have been neglected way too long. We take our bees for granted but this industry is a breaking point and it is high time that we find solutions to help to protect them. Vaccines have proven to be the most effective way to prevent and contain disease and most importantly, our approach is organic without the use of harsh chemicals,” Dalial Freitak says.

Dalan AH aims to develop a vaccine against American foulbrood, a bacterial disease caused by the spore-forming Paenibacillus larvae ssp. larvae. American foulbrood is the most widespread and destructive of the bee brood diseases. “We hope that we can also develop a vaccination against other infections, such as European foulbrood and fungal diseases. The plan is to be able to vaccinate against any microbe”.

Now, the company has introduced the concept of an insect vaccine to the USDA and have filed a license application for the first ever honey bee vaccine.

“Our next goal is to launch our first vaccine product in the US and then the EU. Once we have tackled bee diseases we want to offer solutions for other commercially used pollinators such as bumble bees and other beneficial insects. Our goal is to offer innovative solutions in insect health in order to promote sustainable agriculture,” Dalial Freitak says.

Being a pioneer is inspiring

The journey towards the vaccine has so far been immensely inspiring.

“Writing the roadmap for insect vaccination and filing the clinical protocol with the regulator was super exciting. The other inspiring moment was seeing my idea come to life and and seeing a prototype vaccine formulation in a bottle had been a dream come true. Now we have to get it approved and onto the market so others get to participate in changing the way we care for our insects.”

The COVID-19 situation has been the biggest challenge for the company so far.

“The lock-downs and travel restrictions have definitely slowed us down. But we have a creative team and we are doing everything we can to make up for the slowdown. Here probably the good thing has been that Dalan AH has been from the beginning a virtual company, so having several online meetings and brainstorming involving people around the globe has been a routine for us from the get go,” Dalial Freitak says.

Commercialisation has been the goal right from the beginning

“The Dalan AH oral bee vaccine is a great showcase of the variety of innovations coming from the University of Helsinki. It has been inspiring and rewarding to see how the Dalan team has expanded and advanced the technology and business further continuously improving our response to the declining bee populations.” says Jari Strandman, CEO of Helsinki Innovation Services, company responsible for technology transfer and spinout company creation from the University of Helsinki.

Dalan Animal Health website

Organismal and Evolutionary Biology Research Programme

The article was originally published on October 2018, after which an amended version was published on 29 October 2020.

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