Disease Research Limited (DRL)

Established by Prof. Frank Griffin in 1985

Established by Prof. Frank Griffin in 1985 within the Dept. of Microbiology & Immunology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, DRL (originally Deer Research Laboratory, subsequently Disease Research Laboratory and more recently reborn as Disease Research Limited) have worked closely with New Zealand vets and farmers for the past 35 years to develop and make available custom diagnostic services to better meet their needs. In conjunction with the provision of testing services, DRL have always been actively engaged in research activities relative to animal health in NZ and in the translation of their laboratory findings into practical and usable frontline diagnostic tools. Recently, DRL have transitioned from a university-administered laboratory service into an independent agri-enterprise under the management of Otago Innovation Limited based at the Invermay Agricultural Centre based in Mosgiel just outside of Dunedin.

DRL’s stock in trade for the past 10 years has been an inhouse, serum ELISA-based test (ParalisaTM) tailored for diagnosis of Johne’s disease (JD) in farmed deer which was developed in response to poor performance of commercial test kits designed for cattle in this species. Prior to this, DRL was heavily invested in the development and application of a custom Tb diagnostic test to the deer industry which provided greater sensitivity and specificity than the skin test and through which the incidence of Tb in NZ deer herds has been reduced over a period of 25 years years from 430 infected herds in 1989 to presently just 4 Tb infected herds today.

In December 2015 in a letter of appreciation and endorsement of DRL’s services, Mr Kris Orange, Chairman of the New Zealand Deer Farmers Association, acknowledged that ‘feedback from the Deer Branch chairs was both enthusiastic and optimistic and allows we as NZDFA to reinforce our support for DRL, its skills and innovation and for a further future role in animal health diagnostics and adding value to the genetic resources and top deer farming performance that we now enjoy. DRL has been a pivotal part of that evolution’.

Recognition of Excellence and Innovation

When Prof. Griffin was awarded the Pickering Medal by the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2010 in recognition of excellence and innovation in the practical application of technology, DRL’s efforts were credited with having saved the deer industry $90m of production that would otherwise have been lost to these diseases (Tuberculosis, Yersiniosis and Johne’s disease).

Customised Faecal PCR (fPCR) Test

Routine service provision of the Paralisa test for the past decade (to the tune of 25-30k tests annually) has equipped DRL with expertise in high-throughput testing and allowed investment in high-level laboratory automation and systemised reporting. In addition, DRL has uniquely developed and validated a customised faecal PCR (fPCR) test for direct quantitation of MAP shedding in dung samples, with results stratified into shedding categories for reporting.

DRL are the only laboratory in NZ which has such a validated fPCR test on offer as a routine service. The advantage of fPCR is that it measures the quantity of MAP bacteria within a faecal sample which in turn is a reliable measure of disease severity. Used singly or in conjunction with ELISA this test may be used to prioritise the elective culling of only those most seriously affected individuals which contribute the greatest infection risk for the remainder of the herd and provide the farmer with assurance that they are making the best culling decisions. This strategy allows less affected individuals to be flagged for appropriate risk management and targeted monitoring. The stratification of affected animals also allows investment in JD management programmes to be appropriately tailored according to available resources as well as to the scale of the problem and the goals of a JD management plan.

DRL’s strategy has been to work with JD affected herds to extract maximally informative management information while minimising testing cost to farmers (through pooling and minimisation of the, more expensive, qPCR test) and minimised culling costs (through stratification and prioritisation of shedders). In this manner, test negative animals are eliminated from the test pool as early as possible and only confirmed high shedding animals indicated for culling. DRL see their services best situated working alongside herd owners, and their veterinary advisors, already experiencing production losses associated with clinical JD and seeking additional, tailored assistance and the next level of diagnostic information.

Otago Innovation Ltd

In 2016, DRL became part of Otago Innovation Ltd, the commercialisation arm of the University of Otago, which is the vehicle that brings the University’s laboratory inventions to the real world. New drugs, diagnostics, devices, software and gadgets are all part of the suite of technologies that Otago Innovation develops and markets. A core function is to identify and protect intellectual property, deploying patent attorney skills, including its own. DRL thus nestled comfortably in the nexus between commerce and academia.

A major benefit of DRL sitting in two worlds of research and commerce was its able to conduct research relevant to the diagnostic business, and to do so for three decades. The result is a diagnostic service for vets and farmers always informed by the latest research. There is no equivalent in the New Zealand primary sector.

Independent Ownership

In 2020, DRL was purchased by the employees, allowing the business to stand strong on its own.  The renowned customer service and quick turn around of livestock diagnostics, backed by Simon’s 22 years in the lab, continue to be the cornerstone of our service.  While Otago Innovation Ltd continues to be a minority shareholder, our focus can turn directly on increasing the services needed by the various livestock industries, including cattle, deer, goats and sheep, with animal health at the forefront.