Professor Billy Hargis hates to see sick animals.
That’s why he got his veterinary degree and a Ph.D., and then spent much of his academic career working on vaccines.
“That’s the paradox,” Hargis says, describing vaccine development. “We have to make animals sick to see if we can protect them.”
Now Hargis, director of the Skeeles Poultry Health Laboratory at the University of Arkansas, is seeing products of his life’s work built into a new world headquarters of a growing Arkansas-born vaccine company, Pacific GeneTech. Most of PGT’s staff now works out of Hong Kong.
The company, which has licensed a line of vaccine innovations from the University of Arkansas System’s Division of Agriculture, is building offices, a research lab and a manufacturing plant in north Springdale. Its mission is to provide vaccine technologies to protect poultry, swine, ruminants, fish and, perhaps soon, people.
PGT will manufacture an adjuvant — a substance that enhances the body’s immune response to an antigen — in Springdale, using a platform Hargis co-developed in collaboration with Texas A&M, Ohio State University and the University of Guelph in Ontario. The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hargis has no stake in PGT but is listed as a scientific adviser.
The vaccine technologies he worked on guard against economic risks like salmonella, Eimeria and avian influenza, and are designed to deliver protection from several diseases via one vaccine. It can be delivered as an additive to the animals’ water or perhaps via a water spray. Avian flu alone has cost the U.S. government nearly $700 million in the past year and a half, and contributed to record high egg prices.
The company, which now has nine employees in the United States and Hong Kong, has secured a headquarters site, and Executive Chairman Louis Bowen told Arkansas Business he expects to have final permits within weeks. The 1970 UA economics graduate and University of Pennsylvania MBA predicts his team will be in place on an extension of Dixieland Road by the end of the first quarter of 2024.
Building in Phases
The facility will be built in phases and employ about five high-tech workers at the start, and an estimated 15 or more in four or five years, Bowen said.
PGT is working with a development partner Bowman wasn’t quite ready to name, but he said construction would begin soon between East Apple Blossom Avenue and Wagon Wheel Road near the Lowell city limits.
“Our site is going to be on that extension of Dixieland, which is under construction, quite close to where it intersects with Wagon Wheel Road. We will front the new extension of Dixie,” said Bowen, who founded PGT with former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker in 2009 and often splits his time between Hong Kong and the United States.
Bowen said the site offers expansion possibilities, and he expects the investment to run into unspecified millions of dollars. “In addition to the construction of the building, which is quite substantial, the internal investment we’ll be making in terms of equipment and fittings will be in the neighborhood of a million and a half dollars.
“That’s Phase 1,” he added. “Based on projections, when we get into years two and three, we would basically double the physical size and increase the capacity of the plant about threefold.” The initial building will be about 15,000 SF, increasing gradually to about 35,000 SF, Bowen said.
Through its deal with the UA, PGT has global rights to nine families of vaccine patents with issued and pending patents in more than 40 nations.
One Key Position
The Springdale research and manufacturing jobs will all be high-skill positions, Bowen said, and management suites are in the blueprints. “We have the rights to supply adjuvant to our licensees for our vaccines, but we also are developing a market to sell the adjuvant directly to other vaccine producers as well. We’ll be making that adjuvant at the facility.”
One of the new offices will go to Senior Operations Advisor Bruce Smith, a former COO of Safe Foods Corp. who is leading planning on the Springdale facility. Smith helped to plan and then managed Safe Foods’ headquarters, manufacturing and R&D center in North Little Rock before retiring in 2019.
“We enticed him to come out of retirement to become our senior person in Arkansas while we’re building this facility,” Bowen said. “So we have a great asset, and he will continue on with the company afterwards.”
PGT has licensing agreements with Kemen Biologics, a subsidiary of Kemin Industries of Des Moines, Iowa, to produce vaccines for salmonella and Eimeria. Eimeria causes coccidiosis, a disease in animals and humans.
Hargis tried to put the science into layman’s terms:
“The adjuvant is mixed with an antigen such as an inactivated pathogen. It causes the antigen to be presented to cells called macrophages and it makes them angry, and they produce a chemical called cytokines that tell the [protective] B and T lymphocytes to do their thing.”
The vaccines offer an alternative to antibiotics “and can replace multiple vaccines with one vaccine through drinking water or a spray,” PGT CEO Tim Collard said.
Hargis told Arkansas Business that the technique is a “fairly inexpensive approach” that “doesn’t cause injection-site lesions in birds and has several advantages over things that are now being used.”
Beyond the two poultry vaccines licensed to Kemin, PGT has developed a third vaccine and is investigating potential licensees for a swine vaccine, Bowen said.
“The market today has some salmonella vaccines and some E. coli vaccines, but there’s no vaccine that can help protect against both pathogens at the same time,” Bowen said. “We have completed our development work on that, and we’re looking at ruminants as well as a very interesting program related to fish.”
The idea is to put fingerling fish into a “basket-type arrangement where the vaccine associated with our adjuvant is,” Bowen said. “That’s how they would absorb the vaccine, and it’s much more efficient than the classical way of vaccinating fish, which is by injection.”
And there’s one last element of Pacific GeneTech’s quest, Bowen said. The company is now working on a human vaccine against dysentery, which kills about 500,000 people a year. (See Whispers, Page 3.)
“We want to try to bring this to market. It would be great, if we can be successful, to develop the first vaccine to address a great need on a global basis, and have it come out of our company and the state of Arkansas.”