A rapid antigen test designed to speed up facial eczema detection on farm animals has won government backing to help take it from the laboratory to the field for testing.
The RAT designed by Tokaora Diagnostics has received more than $35,000 in funding from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.
The family-owned research company is headed by chief researcher Frey Livingston and his mother Pam, who is the managing director.
The company conducted initial research and development through start-up grants from Callaghan Innovation.
It also won the Venture Taranaki Power Up Awards in 2022 and received mentoring through the Sprout Agritech Accelerator programme.
“We’re grateful to have received so much support to make an ‘invisible’ problem visible,” Frey Livingston said.
“Right now, farmers can test for the disease through blood samples taken by vets but it is expensive and time consuming. With our solution, farmers will be able to do the testing themselves quickly and easily via nasal mucus or saliva.”
The Livingstons are in the process of wrapping up the proof-of-concept phase of the project, which looked at whether a facial eczema (FE) test using mucus, saliva or urine could be used instead of blood.
Urine has been ruled out but mucus and saliva hold promise for use in the test.
RAT testing for disease gained a high profile during the covid-19 pandemic after it was widely used as a means for people to quickly test themselves.
Frey said the test being developed uses a similar concept.
“RAT tests are common technology. If they’re going to be in a farmers’ hands when they’re out there in the field, you want something that is proven and reliable,” Livingston said.
The test being developed will indicate a low, medium or high level of FE rather than just a positive or negative result. This is because of the widely varying impact the disease can have on animals.
“And that’s what has motivated our research – the knowledge that for every animal out there showing physical symptoms, we’re missing an enormous amount that show no symptoms but are unwell and have a drop in production.”
If successful, the tool could help farmers manage a disease that costs the New Zealand economy more than $200 million each year, he said.
The goal is to have a working prototype in place by the end of the year, which is what the SFFF funding will help towards.
If successful, the test could be used by veterinarians if there is a downed or sick animal or for FE management by farmers in summer together with zinc treatments and grass testing for FE spores.
It could also be used as a tool to help inform purchase, breeding and culling decisions.
Pam Livingston said FE is shifting into more areas of the country due to climate change.
“We don’t want the first time that a farmer experiences FE to be a nasty shock for them. We envisage that [the test] is going to be used for surveillance in those creeping areas as well.”
The test will initially focus on dairy cattle, but it could be used with sheep, beef cattle, and deer.
The MPI’s director of investment programmes, Steve Penno, said it is supporting Tokaora Diagnostics to take the proof-of-concept test to the next stage because there is no cheap, on-farm diagnostic on the market.
“FE is a long-standing issue for our agricultural sector, and with climate change it’s expected to get worse as the toxic spores that cause the disease are more likely to grow in warm and humid conditions.”