The first-ever insect vaccine PrimeBEE helps bees stay healthy

The easily administered edible vaccine could keep pollinators safe from bacterial diseases and give invaluable support for food production worldwide.

Food and pollination services are important for everyone: humans, production animals and wildlife alike. Inventing something that guards against pollinator losses will have a tremendous impact.

PrimeBEE is the first-ever vaccine for honey bees and other pollinators. It fights severe microbial diseases that can be detrimental to pollinator communities. The invention is the fruit of research carried out by two scientists in the University of Helsinki, Dalial Freitak and Heli Salmela.

The basis of the innovation is quite simple. When the queen bee eats something with pathogens in it, the pathogen signature molecules are bound by vitellogenin. Vitellogenin then carries these signature molecules into the queen’s eggs, where they work as inducers for future immune responses.

Before this, no-one had thought that insect vaccination could be possible at all. That is because the insect immune system, although rather similar to the mammalian system, lacks one of the central mechanisms for immunological memory – antibodies.
"Now we've discovered the mechanism to show that you can actually vaccinate them. You can transfer a signal from one generation to another," researcher Dalial Freitak states.

From moths to honey bees

Dalial Freitak has been working with insects and the immune system throughout her career. Starting with moths, she noticed that if the parental generation is exposed to certain bacteria via their food, their offspring show elevated immune responses.

"So they could actually convey something by eating. I just didn't know what the mechanism was. At the time, as I started my post-doc work in Helsinki, I met with Heli Salmela, who was working on honeybees and a protein called vitellogenin. I heard her talk and I was like: OK, I could make a bet that it is your protein that takes my signal from one generation to another. We started to collaborate, got funding from the Academy of Finland, and that was actually the beginning of PrimeBEE," Dalial Freitak explains.

Future plans: vaccinating honey bees against any microbe

PrimeBEE's first aim is to develop a vaccine against American foulbrood, a bacterial disease caused by the spore-forming Paenibacillus larvae ssp. larvae. American foulbrood is the most widespread and destructive of the bee brood diseases.
"We hope that we can also develop a vaccination against other infections, such as European foulbrood and fungal diseases. We have already started initial tests. The plan is to be able to vaccinate against any microbe".

At the same time as the vaccine’s safety is being tested in the laboratory, the project is being accelerated towards launching a business. Sara Kangaspeska, Head of Innovation at Helsinki Innovation Services HIS, has been involved with the project right from the start.

"Commercialisation has been a target for the project from the beginning. It all started when Dalial and Heli contacted us. They first filed an invention disclosure to us describing the key findings of the research. They then met with us to discuss the case in detail and since then, the University has proceeded towards filing a patent application that reached the national phase in January 2018.”

A big step forward was to apply for dedicated commercialisation funding from Business Finland, a process which is coordinated and supported by HIS. HIS assigns a case owner for each innovation or commercialisation project, who guides the project from A to Z and works hands-on with the researcher team.

“HIS core activities are to identify and support commercialisation opportunities stemming from the University of Helsinki research. PrimeBEE is a great example of an innovation maturing towards a true commercial seed ready to be spun-out from the University soon. It has been inspiring and rewarding to work together with the researchers towards a common goal,” says Sara Kangaspeska.

The latest news is that based on the PrimeBEE invention, a spinout company called Dalan Animal Health will be founded in the very near future.

"We need to help honey bees, absolutely. Even improving their life a little would have a big effect on the global scale. Of course, the honeybees have many other problems as well: pesticides, habitat loss and so on, but diseases come hand in hand with these life-quality problems. If we can help honey bees to be healthier and if we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit," Dalial Freitak asserts.

PrimeBee website

Organismal and Evolutionary Biology Research Programme
Centre of Excellence in Biological Interactions