UK Part of Neogen's Animal Safety Success

In late June international animal and food safety giant Neogen Corporation announced an expansion of the company's Lexington Ky.-based division. Neogen's Kentucky roots date back 20 years to when the company became interested in technology developed by the University of Kentucky (UK) and one of the school's first successful spinoff companies, WTT. Neogen would later set up an animal safety division in Lexington, buy WTT, and license the technology that has returned $2.2 million in royalties to UK.

WTT was established in 1988 and named by its founders, David Watt, PhD, professor of cellular and molecular biochemistry in the College of Medicine; Hsin-Hsiung "Daniel" Tai, PhD, professor in the College of Pharmacy's Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences; and Thomas Tobin, PhD, MRCVS, Dipl. ABT, professor of veterinary science and in the graduate center for toxicology at the College of Agriculture's Gluck Equine Research Center.

The Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council and the Kentucky State Racing Commission had approached Tobin three years earlier to try to solve the opiate abuse problem plaguing the racing industry. He proposed developing a panel of highly sensitive immunoassay tests for these high potency drugs, which were difficult to detect at that time.

Tobin enlisted the help of Tai, who had developed numerous ELISA (enzyme-linked) immunoassay tests for prostaglandins, steroids, and other drugs. "I was confident that similar strategies could be applied to the development of ELISA tests for abused drugs in racehorses," Tai said.

Watt joined the group to create the chemical derivatives of each test's drugs--the first step in the process.

By 1988, Watt, Tobin, and Tai had in place half a dozen carefully targeted opiate tests. According to Tobin, "Patterns of performance-enhancing substance abuse that had existed in racing for 100 years were abruptly terminated, and to use a racing phrase, the (ELISA) technology was off and running."

The next year they contacted Len Heller, former Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at the UK Chandler Medical Center, for assistance. Heller purchased the company, became CEO, and named co-owner Terri Morrical the CFO. The company licensed the technology through UK's for-profit corporation, Kentucky Technology Inc., and developed 29 ELISA diagnostic tests.

UK's technology became the foundation for Neogen's new animal safety focus and Lexington-based division when Heller sold WTT to the company in 1991. Today, Neogen's Lexington operation manufactures and distributes a variety of animal healthcare products, including diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, veterinary instruments, wound care products, and disinfectants. The company employs close to 130 people at its two locations on Nandino Boulevard and Creative Drive.

"I had no idea that we were writing a bit of UK history with WTT," said Heller, who held a seat on the Neogen Board of Directors until he was named vice president of the new UK Office for Commercialization & Economic Development in late 2006. "WTT is a great success story for the university on several levels, and the researchers and their colleges are still receiving royalties today."

Heller is quick to point out that Neogen's Animal Safety Division is also a great success story for Lexington and the Commonwealth. Local and state government support over the years encouraged the international company to stay in Lexington and reinvest in their Kentucky operation.

On June 28 Gov. Steve Beshear joined community leaders and Neogen Corporation officials to announce that the company will expand its Fayette County footprint with the addition of a 100,000-square-foot facility on Mercer Road. The project will generate a capital investment of more than $5.6 million and create 75 new jobs over the next several years.

"We're thrilled to be able to stay and grow within Lexington," said Terri Morrical, who managed the transition at the time of the WTT sale and is Neogen's vice president of animal safety. "For quite some time, we had been clearly outgrowing our facilities and we investigated many alternatives, both near and far, to best suit our expanding needs. Working closely with state and local officials, we realized that staying here was our best choice. The Mercer Road facility represents an excellent solution for our growth plans."

"Neogen and Lexington are a good fit," said Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. "Our economy needs the high-quality jobs the company provides, and Lexington, with its highly educated workforce and outstanding quality of life, is a place Neogen can thrive. We are excited about their growth."

Deb Weis is the marketing and communications director at the University of Kentucky Commercialization and Economic Development.

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