SenesTech: Controlling Animal Populations

When people talk about controlling animal populations, it can be instinct to react with distaste, or question the need for human interference in nature’s processes. Consider then, uncontrolled animal populations, whether canines, possums, rodents, among others, that create a diverse range of pressing problems across the globe. In India, 60,000 children die from rabies annually, a disease transmitted by unchecked infected dogs. In New Zealand, the primary economic driver, the livestock industry, is threatened by the brush tail possum, vector of bovine tuberculosis. Even within the United States, uncontrolled rat populations cause destruction in urban, agricultural and industrial sectors. They cause damage to structures, wiring and property, and are even vectors of disease spread. They affect livestock, grain production and storage, as well as ravaging large food preparation sites and seaports. Enter SenesTech, a current Larta NIH-CAP participant, developing a platform technology that helps humanely manage animal population size to compatible levels by targeting fertility, and inducing early menopause in target populations.

Loretta Mayer, Co-founder, tells us, “We are driven to select application areas based on impact. We lean towards tackling those market needs that have critical impact, such as disease or hunger, and of course from then on, the secondary markets develop. It is about understanding the impact of un-checked reproduction, and its consequences, in different settings.” Their first focus is on managing rat populations in urban U.S. settings, an opportunity to have greater social impact over other applications to which this technology could be applied in the future, such as controlling pet populations.

SenesTech recently launched a large scale field study in partnership with the New York Transit Authorities to observe the results of this solution in a very real world context. The rat population problem in the NYC subway system ranges from anywhere to millions, if not hundreds of millions in size. SenesTech aims to determine how to best deliver its birth control solution to rats to ultimately create a slower reproductive cycle, and reduce the number of offspring per litter. Loretta explains, “The New York City subway system, that’s a very large endeavor for us. When you consider managing animal populations in urban settings, you have to factor in the consequences of the control mechanism. Evaluating rodenticide as a control mechanism, the 15,000 US annual child poisonings, not to mention that we have no idea what number of companion animals are also poisoned by the rodenticide control mechanism, all play into picking the best, and safest, population management method.” SenesTech’s reproductive control mechanism has shown no harmful effect, even in large quantities, in non-human primates (ergo humans), and when exposed to soil and water, it breaks down into inactive compounds, causing no environmental exposure. It is a whole new way of looking at population control, by targeting fertility over generations, instead of reducing current population numbers through killing, which has been done over centuries without a sustainable solution.

[quote_left]"Our experience with the program has been right on target. As we have been preparing to move our technology into the marketplace the timely input from the Larta team has been excellent."[/quote_left]

The technology being commercialized grew out of a research technology at the University of Arizona, that was looking at developing a natural model for menopause in mice, wherein it emerged that they were able to induce menopause in mice with no detrimental side effects, the mice remained completely healthy, and the compound used had no impact on the environment and did not adversely affect the handlers. After filing the first patent, SenesTech was born. They then expanded into trials, with a very successful first field trial in dogs on the Navajo reservation through grant funding. The company’s next efforts focused on developing a world class scientific advisory board made up of absolute experts in their fields, who were all excited about a fertility control product with no adverse effects. With the board’s insights, they realized that the real global driver for animal population control, with the biggest market pain, was rat populations. SenesTech then started to build a business plan around controlling rats, including agriculture and urban applications. They then received Phase I funding from the NIH, followed by $1.1M in subsequent funding for the pilot program in NYC that brought SenesTech to Larta.

Of their time in Larta’s CAP, Loretta says, "Our experience with the program has been right on target. As we have been preparing to move our technology into the marketplace the timely input from the Larta team has been excellent. We have taken advantage of all opportunities and followed-up on every contact. If all new SBIR awardees could possibly take advantage of this program I am certain we would move much more technology to commercial applications and generate many more jobs in our economy."