While growing up in New York State, Roy Curtiss III raised chickens as a member of his local 4-H Club.
"I guess I've come full circle," said Curtiss, a Washington University biology professor who has created experimental vaccines to battle salmonella bacteria, a major cause of food poisoning.
His vaccines for chickens and pigs are making the slow, arduous step from science to marketplace. Field tests have just begun, but commercialization is at least two years away.
Curtiss sees these vaccines as an important step in making other vaccines for animals and humans.
"You could say we're using chickens and swine as guinea pigs," said Curtiss, a director of Megan Animal Health Inc., the St. Louis company developing the vaccines.
The company views the vaccines as a way of earning and learning.
It can make some money on these products as it tries to attract research funds for more animal vaccines and some human vaccines.
And it is using the animal vaccines as models for human vaccines.
Possible products include vaccines for malaria, typhoid fever, leprosy and a form of hepatitis, said Brian L. Clevinger, chief executive of Megan Animal Health.
The company was incorporated last June. Its major investors are Upjohn Co., a giant drug company, and A/W Co. of St. Louis.
A/W Co. is a joint venture of Washington University and Moshe Alafi, a California-based venture capitalist specializing in medical and biotechnology companies.
A/W Co. tries to turn Washington University's research into commercial products. Clevinger also is president of A/W Co.
Megan Animal Health is focusing on animal vaccines first because they are easier and cheaper to make than vaccines for humans.
"It takes maybe two years to get an animal vaccine to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Curtiss explained.
"A human vaccine would require six or seven years (of tests and government review) to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration," he said.
Genetically engineered vaccines must travel an even longer regulatory road.
In fighting salmonella, Curtiss is tackling a bacteria that creates considerable discomfort and occasional havoc.
Salmonella caused about 1.8 million of the 6.5 million food-borne diseases in the United States in 1992, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most salmonella food poisonings are caused by contaminated poultry and swine.
There are about 2,000 types of salmonella bacteria, and scientists are unable to create a one-size-fits-all vaccine.
In pigs, for example, salmonella causes severe diarrhea and a typhoid fever-like disease. Humans who eat infected pork get sick.
But chickens infected with salmonella don't get sick. When humans eat salmonella-infected chicken or eggs, they get food poisoning.
So Curtiss' pig vaccine is designed to defeat the disease in the animals. His chicken vaccine is designed to reduce the bacteria content in the animals and their eggs, lessening the chance humans will become ill.
Curtiss began thinking about vaccines in the late 1970s and early 1980s while studying infectious diseases at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He moved to Washington University in 1983 as chairman of the biology department, a post he held until last year.
He conjured up his first business plan in April 1988 as he walked along a North Carolina beach, dictating his thoughts into a tape recorder. Curtiss recalls that his secretary noticed the sounds of …