Last June, Eli Lilly's ($LLY) Elanco animal health unit was among 150 companies that presented formal plans to reduce the use of antibiotics in food animals. Widespread use of antibiotics that are also used in human healthcare--often for non-medical purposes, such as promoting growth of food animals--is thought to have given rise to so-called "superbugs" in people that are difficult to treat.
On March 17, Elanco announced the launch of a new product for dairy cows that's designed to offer farmers an alternative to antibiotics. The drug, Imrestor (pegbovigrastim injection), was approved by the FDA to treat mastitis, a common disease among dairy cows that impedes conception and milk production. The drug is a protein that boosts cows' immune systems during calving, according to a press release from Elanco.
"I believe it's the first non-antibiotic, therapeutic intervention for mastitis that's ever been approved (by the Food and Drug Administration) in the United States," said Tom Campi, a senior research adviser for Elanco, during a presentation at a symposium sponsored by the Farm Foundation and USDA's Economic Research Service, according to Agri-Pulse. "It's not an antibiotic, it's not a hormone… it's not GMO (genetically modified). It's all the right things."
Food producers are facing increasing pressure to find antibiotics alternatives. In October, the USDA, FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started plotting methods for capturing on-farm antibiotic use and data on resistance to the drugs. And California passed the strictest legislation on the issue to date--a bill that prohibits antibiotics use for fattening up animals and that requires licensed veterinarians to prescribe the drugs for use in food production.
Still, the push to eliminate drug-resistant bugs has saddled the animal health industry with the challenge of figuring out how to fight serious diseases without using antibiotics, said Catherine Woteki, USDA under secretary for research, education and economics, during the recent symposium. Some companies are looking at the strategy of developing antimicrobials that are narrowly targeted to animal diseases, she said. But they might not be effective. And she worries that the move away from using antibiotics that are also used in people "may have adverse consequences on the production, health and welfare of animals."
Mastitis is the most common disease on dairy farms, affecting one in four cows, according to Elanco. When the cows are calving, they suffer a loss of neutrophils, the white blood cells that are essential for fending off infection. Imrestor helps restore those neutrophils, the company says. In trials, the drug, which is administered in two injections, reduced incidence of mastitis by 28% when compared to a control group.
Imrestor is part of Elanco's 8-point "antibiotic stewardship plan," which its president, Jeff Simmons, presented at the White House last year. Replacing antibiotics with alternatives was part of that plan, along with ensuring the responsible use of antibiotics and reducing reliance on antimicrobials that are also used in people.