A RAT test for FE

A Taranaki scientific team is testing the development of a rapid antigen test (RAT) for the detection of facial eczema (FE). By Elaine Fisher.

Frey Livingston, chief researcher for Tokaora Diagnostics taking samples from cows as part of his research towards developing a RAT test for facial eczema.

Scientist Frey Livingston’s work to realise his childhood dream of having a patent for an invention looks set to also yield a much-needed simple way of identifying facial eczema in livestock.

“As a kid I always wanted to do science and had this idea that to have a patent would be the coolest thing,” Frey says. He is chief researcher for Tokaora Diagnostics which he runs with his mother and managing director Pam Livingston.

Twenty-five-year-old Frey, with an outstanding academic career, including a Master of Science – Biotechnology from Victoria University Wellington, could have turned his attention to almost any research and indeed, anywhere in the world.

Instead, prompted by his father James, he chose to focus on an almost uniquely New Zealand livestock problem – facial eczema (FE) and develop a rapid antigen test (RAT) to identify it. The test could be used with sheep, cattle, and deer but initial trials will focus on dairy cattle. Now the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund is investing more than $35,000 into Tokaora Diagnostics’ project to develop a prototype facial eczema RAT and undertake field testing.

The research had its beginnings in 2018 when Frey’s supervisor let him go beyond the boundaries of a standard master’s degree project to spend two years to find a way to integrate human biosensors like RATs with the existing body of knowledge on facial eczema.

Setting up Tokaora Diagnostic with Pam to build on Frey’s initial research followed the completion of his master’s degree. However, facial eczema research was not Frey’s initial research goal.

“I had planned to study genetics but decided to leave that for now and concentrate on something tangibly helpful to New Zealand’s animal health problems.”

And if Frey can develop a reliable RAT test for FE, a disease estimated to cost the New Zealand economy more than $200 million each year, he will certainly benefit New Zealand farmers.

Steve Penno, MPI’s director of investment programmes says FE is a disease of the liver and often doesn’t show physical symptoms until it’s too late to save the animal.

“Currently there’s no cheap, onfarm diagnostic on the market, so we’re supporting Tokaora Diagnostics to take their proof-of-concept test to the next stage.”

Pam says the response from the government, funders, and the science and agricultural community towards the RAT test research has been heartening.

“There’s a big push to better understand and manage FE for the benefit of animal health and farmers. The science community really wants the test to happen, because it will also assist their research and identify which animals have the disease and how badly they are affected.”

Thanks to Frey’s two-year master’s study, and on-going research, the prototype for the RAT test may be ready by October or November this year with field trials complete by mid- 2024. That’s a fairly short timeline but the fact that the test is not invasive means it does not have to undergo the kind of rigorous scrutiny animal medicines require. “However, we are passionate about science and will carry out rigorous testing and gain robust data to prove it works. To gain the trust of vets and the science community Frey will publish papers on the research,” Pam says.

RAT tests became familiar for the public through their use to identify Covid-19 but Frey says the technology has been used in human medicine for a long time including pregnancy and diabetes testing.

To find a similar simple test for FE, Frey had to isolate a biomarker for the disease. The current test for the disease is blood samples taken by vets which 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,” Frey says.

Frey’s empathy for livestock and farming comes from his childhood growing up on his family farm in Omata, just south of New Plymouth and his farming roots inspired the name for the company. The pastoral township of Tokaora in South Taranaki was named after his great-great-grandfather James Livingston. “Toka can mean stone and ora life – a play on the name Livingston, so we decide it was an appropriate name for our research company, focused on wellbeing,” says Frey.

The company conducted initial research and development through start-up grants from Callaghan Innovation. It won the Venture Taranaki Power Up Awards in 2022 and received mentoring through the Sprout Agritech Accelerator programme. Tokaora has also received funding from the Agricultural and Marketing Research and Development Trust (AGMARDT).

If successful, the facial eczema RAT test will probably be a world first. Pam and Frey say that’s because the disease is pretty much a NZ farming problem and narrowing it even further, it’s mainly a problem for North Island farmers. However, climate change could see it spread more widely. “We are seeing facial eczema show up in areas where it has not been obvious before, including in the South Island,” says Pam.

“It’s a disease which in the early stages is invisible and we hope to make it visible for farmers so they can take steps to manage it because currently there is no cure for FE.”

Optimistic that Tokaora Diagnostics will produce a reliable, easy-to-use RAT test for FE, Frey and Pam however, are not over-selling the possibility.

“We are very measured and stick to the facts, not expectations. We have great support and are confident in achieving the end resul, but haven’t done it yet.”