Why you should care

Because agri-tech could yield remarkable cures.

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Eddie Sullivan is returning to his laboratory roots in the sprawling Sanford research facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Now CEO of SAB Biotherapeutics, the man trained as a reproductive physiologist tours the pristine labs where his company clones cattle. The specialized cow embryos spend seven days here before being transferred into the womb of a surrogate cow, from which the transgenic calves will eventually emerge to look like any other victim of your cow-tipping youth. Unlike run-of-the-mill bovines, however, these cows produce human antibodies — the type that form the basis of your immune system. When purified from plasma, they could potentially be used to help battle ailments that range from influenza to Ebola.

While the overall biotech industry in South Dakota is small — about 66 firms — the state is emerging as a national force in transgenic animals. In addition to Sanford, there are four companies around 150 miles of Sioux Falls tied to the godly work of creating genetically engineered livestock, which is shocking because “there are only about 20 of these companies that exist worldwide,” reports biotech executive Christoph Bausch, whose Keion Group consulting company studied the sector on behalf of the University of South Dakota Discovery District and other research partners at the state’s public and private colleges and universities.

These companies are modifying animals that, among other things, could be enlisted in the fight against some of the most complex illnesses of our time. “We have the ability to do these things in organisms and produce some very powerful results to medicine in an ethical way,” Bausch says. “Anything that makes you sick — you go off and get Zika. Come knock on our door. We will say, ‘Hey, we can fix that problem.’”

In the agri-tech world, South Dakota is “no longer a flyover state.”

With time, of course. Such science is still a few years, or perhaps even a decade, away as treatments produced in modified cattle go through the complex process of testing trials and regulatory approval. However, using transgenic animals to cure illness is also nowhere near its infancy. SAB Biotherapeutics already has developed an antibody-based immunotherapy designed to combat Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome; Sullivan’s outfit is beginning a Phase 2 clinical trial across the region, where the disease is widespread.

Exemplar Genetics, in nearby Sioux Center, Iowa, is breeding miniature swine with human traits to improve medical testing; Recombinetics in Minneapolis does similar work with a variety of animals. In recent years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved modded chickens that lay eggs which are used in drugs designed to cure a rare inherited liver disease, and lab-born rabbits and goats whose milk is used to treat, respectively, hereditary angioedema, a genetic disease, and deadly blood clots.

These advances have been fast-tracked thanks to improvements in CRISPR technology, which allows scientists to edit genes with previously unimaginable precision. Ostensibly, the method used by SAB Biotherapeutics — boosting compromised immune systems with healthy, fully human antibodies grown in cattle — could be replicated to tackle autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and even the holy grail: oncology. The company already has a treatment for Ebola in the works, too.

Transgenic animals could also be used to improve drug research, helping scientists test medicines on human systems without having them attached to a live person. “There’s a longstanding understanding that trying to test therapeutics on animals doesn’t often translate well when you test in humans,” says James Hughes, director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a think tank based in Boston. Having more access to human antibodies, even ones bred in non–Homo sapiens, could be a giant leap for the scientific community.

The Great Plains is a hotbed for such work in part because it is at the nexus of health care and agriculture. Neighboring Minnesota is home to the Mayo Clinic, while two of Sioux Falls’ top employers are Avera Health and Sanford Health. The latter has contributed to a major medical rebirth in the city thanks to more than $600 million in donations from local banking billionaire T. Denny Sanford. Almost 90 out of 1,000 jobs in the Sioux Falls area are in health care (the national average is 58 out of 1,000). Researchers are even supercommuting from places like Chicago, New York and China to work here in research efforts to cure rare children’s conditions like Batten disease and Type 1 diabetes, according to the Sioux Falls Development Foundation. Those medical advancements mesh nicely with the state’s agricultural tradition. In the agri-tech world, South Dakota is “no longer a flyover state,” as Sullivan puts it.

South Dakota’s economic geography does present some issues though. Investor funding has been strong for early-stage startups, but not so much for midsize companies looking to make that next leap, says Bausch. And there is a dearth of adequate facilities to house researchers on their way to their next Einstein moment, although the Sanford research laboratory, where SAB Biotherapeutics is housed, is one positive example.

Bigger concerns revolve around issues of ethics, public perception and unintended consequences. While most researchers don’t worry about introducing human enzymes or organs into animals (except for “a small fringe of mainly Christian bioethicists,” says Hughes), moral concerns would arise if scientists started tinkering with animal cognition or awareness. Others worry that not enough is known about DNA structures for medical researchers to play with genetic makeup. The ultimate fear: inadvertently creating a supervirus. More problematic for companies like SAB Biotherapeutics is the pervasive notion that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous.

However, the science around these concerns is nascent — and hazy — at best. The anti-GMO movement usually focuses on crops, and folks like Sullivan point out that they don’t want people to eat genetically modified beef — they just want to use it to cure humankind’s deadliest diseases.

* Correction: This article has been updated to clarify language regarding the transgenic treatments.

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