Tibbetts Award recognizes NIEHS grantee innovation in rodent control
By Kirsten Mease
SenesTech co-founders Loretta Mayer, Ph.D., and Cheryl Dyer, Ph.D., were recognized June 15 with one of the highest honors from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), a Tibbetts Award (see sidebar). SenesTech, their Flagstaff, Arizona biotechnology company, developed a novel technology for pest management that uses a humane, sustainable strategy to get to the root of the problem — reproduction. This approach may reduce the reliance on traditional rodenticides, which can adversely affect ecological and human health.
The patented bait technology developed by SenesTech delivers a liquid that disrupts fertility in both male and female rodents, causing significant reductions in urban rodent populations. The bait uses a combination of 4-vinylcyclohexene diepoxide (VCD) and triptolide, a natural product isolated from plants.
Mayer and Dyer received their grants, known as Phase I and Phase II small business innovation research (SBIR) grants, from NIEHS in 2011. These SBIR-funded projects enabled the company to prove its product was effective in an urban environment, through a pilot project using population modeling studies in the New York subway system. “This approach has great potential as a safer and more effective means for reducing rodent populations in urban and agricultural settings,” said Daniel Shaughnessy, Ph.D., NIEHS program manager for the SBIR grants.
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Innovative and effective approach to rodent population management
Reducing the ability to reproduce allows maintenance of rodent populations at a low level, which is critical to avoid the population rebound effect commonly seen after poisoning, when surviving rats can reproduce even faster and neighboring rats can move in. SenesTech’s compound, when used as directed, is safe for handlers and nontarget species, such as pets, livestock, and wildlife. The bait stations were designed to avoid exposure to the fertility control agents by other wildlife and domestic animals.
Population modeling studies conducted by SenesTech scientists in several real-world settings, including the New York City subway system, demonstrated a 50 percent reduction in rat populations in a six-month period. A recent independent study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that SenesTech’s product was 100 percent effective in rendering wild-caught rats infertile after consuming the bait. In addition to USDA, SenesTech is working closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and expects to have EPA registration of their technology in the coming year.
The cost of major urban and agricultural pest challenges
According to SenesTech, annual economic losses caused by rodent populations in the U.S. exceed $27 billion a year. Rodents reduce the quality of life in cities, damage urban infrastructures, destroy crops, contaminate animal feed, and transmit disease.
The Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health confirmed in a study published in October 2014 that rats in New York City carry more than 15 pathogens that can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening illnesses in humans, including the Seoul Hantavirus, salmonella, and Escherichia coli. Senestech is collaborating with and licensing their technology to companies like Orkin, Neogen, and other commercial partners, to bring their technology to market to address these public health threats.
NIEHS small business funds also enabled SenesTech to participate in two small business technical assistance programs through the National Institutes of Health — Niche Assessment and Commercialization Assistance Program. “[This] allowed us to step out of the lab to build the business,” said Mayer.
(Kirsten Mease is a program analyst for Kelly Government Solutions, a contractor supporting the innovative small business grant programs at NIEHS.)