Animals

Here's How an Ostrich Could Someday Save Your Life

Treatments for some of the planet's worst illnesses, including the leading cause of hospital-acquired bacterial infection, could come from an unlikely, gangly-legged source.

<p>Photo: Close up of an ostrich. Credit: Tony Wills, Wikimedia Commons</p>

Ostrich antibodies are so sought after for their health-promoting properties in Japan that people inhale them through face masks, absorb them through skin lotions and sprays and even ingest them in soy sauce.

The trend could soon sweep across the United States and beyond now that a Waltham, Mass.-based biotech startup, appropriately named OstriGen Inc., plans to market ostrich-made antibodies to the masses.

The U.S. Army and one of the world's leading hospitals, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston, have already shown keen interest in the startup, and for good reason. Ostriches could lead to treatments for Ebola, MERS, Zika and Clostridium difficile, which is now the single leading cause of hospital-acquired bacterial infection.

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An ornery bird with a proportionately tiny head and gangly legs would seem like an unusual source for medical treatments, but Stu Greenberg, spokesperson for OstriGen, explained that ostriches are built to last.

Photo: Products containing ostrich antibodies. Credit: Stu Greenberg, OstriGen, Inc.

"Ostriches date back to the Mesozoic period, about 23 million years ago, and possibly even to the Campanian Stage of the Cretaceous Period, 70 to 80 million years ago," Greenberg told Seeker. "Through that long a period, powerful immune response will be developed through natural selection."

One of the startup's primary researchers, Yasuhiro Tsukamoto of Kyoto Prefectural University, has been working with the big birds for years. In a patent titled "Method for production of antibody using ostrich," Tsukamoto explained that conventional animals used for the production of antibodies include mice, rats, sheep and goats. Since these animals are mammals like humans, however, it can be challenging to produce the needed antibodies, even if these animals are immunized against a human molecule-such as a protein-that relates to a certain disease.

Birds turn out to be better for the process. In fact, most flu vaccines originate from chicken eggs. Live viruses are injected into eggs, where they grow after incubation. Chemicals are then used to deactivate the viruses, which are mixed with other strains. The weakened flu viruses then make up the vaccine, triggering our bodies to produce antibodies and immune cells, safeguarding us from the particular flu strains.

Tsukamoto takes this process a step further, by allowing the birds to produce an antibody against the viral agent. As for why he prefers to work with ostriches instead of chickens, he explained that "the chicken has very little blood."

Ostriches, which can weigh up to 250 pounds, provide a great medical canvas to work with, especially considering their powerful immune systems.

There appears to be no harmful side effects or other health risks associated with exposure, or even ingestion, of such antibodies.

"Antibodies are large molecules that interact only with an antigen target such as proteins unique to viruses, bacteria and allergens," Greenberg said. "When you eat a chicken egg, you are ingesting antibodies that were put in the yolk to protect chicks."

Another perk associated with ostrich antibodies is that they are resistant to human stomach acids, which is not the case with mammal-sourced antibodies.

"Antibodies are large molecules that interact only with an antigen target such as proteins unique to viruses, bacteria and allergens," Greenberg said. "When you eat a chicken egg, you are ingesting antibodies that were put in the yolk to protect chicks."

As with all things that sound too good to be true, there are problems to consider.

Chief among those is the fact that ostriches-even with their highly developed immune systems-can succumb to highly contagious flu viruses. A Preventative Veterinary Medicine paper published in June of last year, for example, describes a horrific avian influenza outbreak in South Africa that affected 42 ostrich farms. South Africa produces 80 percent of all ostrich products in the world, from eggs to ostrich steaks.

"The outbreak was controlled using depopulation of infected farms, resulting in the direct loss of ten percent of the country's domestic ostrich population," wrote lead author Lesley van Helden of Western Cape Veterinary Services and colleagues.

If ostriches have such great immune systems, then you wonder why they can be so vulnerable to such illnesses.

Photo: Herd of ostriches in Africa. Credit: Benh Lieu Song, Flickr

Greenberg admitted, "Ostrich immune systems are fast and powerful, but a virulent avian influenza outbreak can infect the ostriches before there is time for their immune systems to produce the antibodies."

Another potential problem is that oral ostrich antibodies have not been formally tested yet in humans.

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"Obviously, you can't deliberately infect humans with viruses, but animal tests have demonstrated the ability (of ostrich antibodies) to neutralize viruses," Greenberg said.

Being natural substances and not technically drugs, the antibodies have already been used in everything from soy sauce-meant to protect against food-borne pathogens-to skin lotions that purportedly provide relief from acne.

The day of reckoning for the exotic ingredients may soon be at hand, given that OstriGen recently announced a collaborative study, involving Tsukamoto and Ciaran Kelly and Xinhua Chen of BIDMC. The research will focus on the effectiveness of ostrich antibodies fighting C. difficile toxins.

Kelly expressed hope that the antibodies, when taken orally, could fit "into a treatment spectrum between vaccinations and antibiotics."

Greenberg shares such optimism.

"There are so many potential applications of ostrich antibodies," he said. "Collaboration with scientists having particular expertise in the various diseases and syndromes is absolutely crucial for us. With their help, we think that ostrich antibiotics can occupy an important position in the spectrum between therapeutics and vaccines."