Jul 14, 2016
Vestaron uses peptide technology to enter biocontrol market

Bolstered by recent EPA approval to delete the bee toxicity warning statement from its Spear biopesticide label, Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Vestaron continues to develop peptide-based insecticides that are expected to hit the commercial market this year.

The company said it is developing products that exploit the natural insecticidal properties of a class of peptides that have potent insect killing potential but are safe to humans, birds, fish and the environment.

The first three Spear products to be released by venture-funded Vestaron include Spear-T, which targets the common greenhouse pest known as thrips (aka corn lice). Next up is Spear-P, a formula developed with the sole mission to protect potatoes by halting the spread of the nefarious Colorado potato beetle. Lastly, Spear-C, which will be released in late 2016, eliminates lepidopteran pests – fruit- and vegetable-eating caterpillars.

“This is a transformative time for Vestaron,” said company CEO John Sorenson. “We are leading the way in development of new insecticidal peptides with the 2016 commercialization of Spear for control of thrips in greenhouses. And in early 2016 we will be submitting additional data to the EPA on Spear’s effects on beneficial insects used in greenhouses.”

John Sorenson. Photos: Vestaron
John Sorenson. Photos: Vestaron

The Spear family of bioinsecticides uses two unique modes of action with no known resistance, according to Vestaron. This family of biopesticides is based on natural peptides that degrade to useful nutrients in the environment. In addition to the bioinsecticides, the company is also leveraging its peptide technology with the development of traits and synthetics that also have a favorable safety spectrum.

In 2015, Vestaron’s bioinsecticide technology received the inaugural Bernard Blum Award for Novel Biocontrol Solutions.

Leading the charge at Vestaron – currently housed in a business incubator facility – is Sorenson, a veteran of the agrochemical industry. He has more than 30 years of agricultural experience, including as president of Syngenta’s global biotechnology division, president of its North American seed businesses and head of Asgrow’s (now Monsanto’s) global vegetable seeds business. Having served on boards of several trade organizations, Sorenson began his career as an assistant and associate professor of genetics at North Carolina State University.

Sorenson was lured out of retirement in 2006 to first serve as chairman of the board for Vestaron, and as CEO a little more than two years ago.

“I fell in love with the company, its products and its research program,” he said. “I moved back to Kalamazoo (from Oregon – where his wife still lives), and the rest is history. I’ve been having a great time, really. I’m really enjoying the job.”

The insect resistance of Vestaron’s technology derives from spider venom, which targets new metabolic pathways of pests. The venom is harmless to mammals (including humans), birds, fish, honeybees and other beneficial insects, according to the company.

Information provided by Vestaron notes that tens of thousands of insecticidal peptides exist in nature. Many are not toxic to mammals. Spiders alone produce an estimated 5 million to 20 million distinct peptide toxins, some of which target metabolic pathways of pests that current insecticides do not. According to the company, this targeted approach is why Spear products are designed to be non-toxic to mammals, honeybees and beneficial insects, birds or fish – species that do not have the receptor where the insecticide enters the cell.

“Our technology isolates these peptides and solves the resistance problem by aggressively pinpointing and attacking new metabolic pathways,” according to the company.

The use of peptides in biological pesticides is credited to research work conducted by Australian molecular bioscience professor Glenn King, Sorenson said.

“The use of spider venoms and the components of spiders that are used for insecticide activity is really the basis of the company,” which currently has 15 employees, Sorenson said. “The exclusive worldwide licenses and patents that were generated expanded the range quite significantly.”

The company was started with financial incentives provided by the state of Michigan, Sorenson said.

“We’re funded by venture capital (through the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Grand Angels, which backs company startups), and that expanded things tremendously,” he said. “We’re just pre-commercial, but will be commercial later this year with our first product (Spear) for greenhouse thrips and whiteflies in both ornamental and vegetable crops. We have other products in development, including for open-field fruits and vegetables, including potato beetle and broad-spectrum use.”

Vestaron_tests

Vestaron received expanded EPA registration for its biological insect control products in 2015. The bioinsecticides derived from newly discovered, naturally occurring peptides will be commercially available later this year under the Spear trade name. The new registration represents an expansion of crops and insects covered. Included are caterpillars (lepidoptera), beetles (coleoptera) and thrips (thysanoptera).

“The approval of this expanded label represents a significant milestone in our pursuit of successful commercialization of this highly efficacious and environmental friendly technology. It’s truly an exciting time for Vestaron,” said Mark Quick, vice president of business development and marketing.

Sorenson said Vestaron’s products have received significant contracted trial support from commercial growers, as well as a number of research university partnerships.

Use of peptides found in spider venom is effective, Sorensen said, “because spiders either kill insects or they don’t eat them. They’ve become pretty good at it. Spider venom can have a cocktail with 1,000 different peptides with real small proteins. In some of those peptides, they are toxic to mammals, including humans. Many are not. The first thing you do is spread out the components, look at the ones that are toxic to mammals, birds, fish.

You find the ones that are safe for humans with no human side effects, and you select those. The result is these real small peptides are very safe.”

Sorenson said the latest technology breakthroughs at Vestaron have proven an impressive safety profile; products require a zero-day preharvest interval and only need a four-hour reentry interval.

“These peptides utilize new modes of action that have never before been used for insect control, and therefore do not suffer from insect resistance,” he said. “In addition to the bioinsecticides, the company is also leveraging its peptide technology with the development of traits and synthetics that also have a favorable safety spectrum.

“Our scientists were able to isolate and identify the nerve cell-based receptors for specific mode-of-action peptides,” Sorenson said. “These receptors are now being employed in several ways to identify additional pesticide compounds, which provides growers with greater flexibility in field operations.”

Vestaron’s products are produced through fermentation using proprietary modifications (patent pending) of a standard yeast expression system.

Sorenson said several agrochemical companies looked at the use of venoms as a source of insecticide as far back as 30 years ago, but didn’t pursue commercial use of the technology.

“It’s feasible now,” he said. “We picked it up. We’re revamping it with modern technology – that’s the key to our success. A number of things in the production area, biology area and peptide chemical area were simply not known when the ag chemical companies were looking at it 20 years ago.

“It’s increasingly difficult to find new chemistries that are particularly safe, and we really think we have a new paradigm for developing insecticides that is going to be really significant to the components of agriculture development from this point forward. We’re really bullish on what we can do and the ease with which we can do it.”

Sorenson said Vestaron’s products hold potential for a wide variety of vegetable crops, including the brassica, solenaceous and cucurbit families.

“We have not done as much with some root crops like carrots and onions, but I think there are applications there as well,” he said.

“We have started looking at fruit – cane fruit, blueberries and also grapes and other tree fruits, apples and peaches,” Sorenson said. “It’s just a matter of application methods, and we still have to work out some formulations for broad control for fruits and vegetables.”

Sorenson said the “problem with biologicals is the safety is great, but the efficacy has not been what it ought to be. Synthetic controls are in the 95 to 100 percent control range. Bioinsecticides have an 80 percent control range. If organic growers or other growers are willing to take that 20 percent loss, biologicals are very attractive.

“Our products, on the other hand, are right up there with synthetics that are reasonably safe and have good control. We’re right up there with them.”

Gary Pullano, associate editor





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