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Waikato agritech developing COVID-19 immunity game-changer

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Innovative Waikato-based company RuaTech is poised to deliver virus-busting armour in the fight against COVID-19.

The agritech company has proved the concept and lodged a patent, and is now seeking investment to take it to the next stage.

RuaTech CEO Dr Steve Hodgkinson says the dairy-based product is positioned for an unmet market need in science-backed immune support, something that is particularly relevant during a pandemic. 

“Beyond vaccines, PPE and social distancing, there are few options available for people wanting to reduce their personal risk of contracting COVID-19.

Kirsty Kraakman Senior Scientist RuaTech

“We are working towards a product that can provide science-backed immune support.”

The eventual product, which could be an oral supplement or a nasal spray, is intended to safeguard people in high-risk situations including events, frontline work, or during mass transportation such as on trains or flights.

Unlike a vaccine that stimulates the body to mount an internal response from the body, Hodgkinson says, the antibodies are being provided in the product.

“You’re not asking the body to make the antibodies; the antibody is being provided in a form that is ingested.

“The intention is that the antibodies simply coat the mouth or the throat and if you are exposed to the virus, they block the virus’ ability to bind for a period of time.”

Hodgkinson says the technology isn’t new and the RuaTech team started researching and developing the product for 20 years with diseases like rotavirus, E. coli and candida in mind.

“All the work we’ve done establishing the immunisation technology has been done and available to us to apply to COVID when we started the project in the middle of last year.”

Still in the early stages of development, the company is also positioning it for on-farm pilot-scale production of the immune milk-based active ingredient of the product. 

The science mimics nature and can be compared to the way a mother’s milk protects the newborn.

The recent breakthrough, made in collaboration with Dr William Kelton at the University of Waikato, has been in the design of coronavirus antigens effective at inducing antibodies in ruminant milk that block virus binding to the receptor that allows entry to human cells.

The milk produced through the scientific platform will be used to develop the new immune support product.

“Leveraging 20 years of research, the science is exciting stuff. However, the freedom that the end product could provide consumers is even more exciting – especially with so many Kiwis facing alert level restrictions currently,” Hodgkinson says.

Not intended as a replacement for the vaccine, Hodkinson says, the product is designed to complement the vaccination by providing immediate protection in the short term.

“What we have learned is vaccines aren’t going to do the job by themselves.

“There’s a couple of reasons including that the effect of the vaccine wears off and we are entering a stage where we’ve got to talk about boosters.

“The second thing is there are variants, we talk about Delta but there’s a son and daughter of Delta out there now called AY.4.2.

“What we need is a platform that readily responds to these new challenges and that’s what we can do with this product.

“With the University of Waikato, we’re able to rapidly design and test antigens for the next generation of virus. That’s a major strength of the platform.”

But Hodgkinson also adds that potential applications of the technology extend well beyond the current pandemic.

“There are opportunities to provide immune support against other pathogens.  An obvious contender is Norovirus which regularly sweeps through close-quartered environments like cruise ships and retirement villages.”

Now that the proof-of-concept phase is complete, Hodgkinson says, it’s time to move ahead which requires funding and dairy industry partners.

The research has been self-funded to date via a loan from Callaghan Innovation and RuaTech is looking for investors and partners who can support the next stage of development.

“We are looking for funders and partners who can help us move into pilot-scale production and launch a product next year,” Hodgkinson says. 

RuaTech is offering collaboration, serious investment return, and global opportunities, this is the chance to bring to market a game-changing product that will help the world better manage COVID-19 and other viruses in the future.

RuaTech (also known as Ruakura Technologies) is a research and technology company that uses robust science to develop products that improve people’s lives. A leader in the development of hyperimmune milk-based products, RuaTech’s experienced team specialises in protein design, biotech manufacturing (for antigen production), agritech, and dairying.

About Steve Hodgkinson PhD, MBA (Dist.) 

Hodgkinson is a multi-disciplinary scientist with a varied background in biomedical, animal and plant research, and business development in the New Zealand science sector.  His previous roles include National Science Leader – Growth and Development for AgResearch, Chief Operating Officer for the Centre of Research Excellence – The National Research Centre for Growth and Development (subsequently Gravida) and Business and Innovation Manager for a leading biomedical research institute – The Liggins Insititute.    

Since moving back to Hamilton, Hodgkinson has been founding investor, director, and CTO of Synthase Biotech Ltd and ran a successful life sciences consultancy before establishing RuaTech early in 2020. 

Hodgkinson has a high output of quality science and success in its commercialisation with over 180 scientific publications, five patent families, and multiple industry-focused technical reports.

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