By Allison Simpson
UTRF’s early focus was agricultural invention and research, with a shift in more recent years to biological and chemical sciences. UT professor Neal Schrick is bringing the UTRF full circle. He has combined a focus in agriculture with a focus in reproduction and physiology to develop Embryo Armor, a product that addresses animal fertility.
Embryo Armor increases the pregnancy rate of livestock. Schrick, who earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Clemson University in animal science, with focuses in reproductive physiology and animal physiology, says his product is the only one of its kind on the market, and it creates top genetics for producers to use in their seedstock or commercial operations.
Traditional embryo transfers were yielding pregnancies, but with some embryo damage along the way, Schrick says. He was attending a seminar on animal reproduction issues at West Virginia University in 1990 when he realized that a harmful hormone was possibly killing the embryos.
“I went to the library and searched through a ton of articles,” he says. “We didn’t have the Internet back then, so it was just me searching through stacks of articles, but I found one that said a specific hormone could be a problem.”
As described in white papers available on the Embryo Armor website, the harmful hormone is Prostaglandin F2? (PGF), and it is used for reproductive management in cattle and other species.
When an embryo is transferred, PGF is naturally produced from the uterus. Research shows PGF can damage the embryo, resulting in retardation of its development and reducing the occurrence of hatching.
Schrick’s Embryo Armor comes in two different forms. One form is liquid, which is kept frozen and must be thawed before use, while the other form is white powder and does not have to be frozen for storage. He says either form should be added to the media in which an embryo is collected prior to transfer to a recipient.
Schrick says the embryo is exposed to harmful hormones during the transfer, and the Embryo Armor “acts as a protector for the embryo, kind of like bubble wrap.”
The “bubble wrap” armor keeps the PGF from binding to the embryo, allowing for more successful development and hatching, he says.
Embryo Armor must be added at the time of collection because that is when negative PGF effects are the greatest. The product proves to be effective for both fresh and frozen embryos.
Schrick says Embryo Armor is patented for use in both the in-vitro and in-vivo processes. In vitro is a process using a test tube; in vivo involves embryo transfer inside the animal recipient.
According to the Embryo Armor website, research for both in-vitro and in-vivo studies show no negative or toxic effects on embryo development from the product. The greatest success has been in facilities with “good management systems, proper condition of recipient animals, and expert embryo transfer techniques and handling of embryos.”
Schrick says tests show an improvement in pregnancy rates of approximately 10 percent when using Embryo Armor on fresh embryos and a 13 percent improvement when using his product on frozen embryos. Frozen embryos typically produce fewer pregnancies because the freezing process puts more stress on the embryos, making them more susceptible to damage, so there is more room for improvement.
Tests have been conducted on approximately 2,000 cows.
“Hopefully this will improve pregnancy issues for livestock producers and eventually in humans for infertile couples,” Schrick says.
The role of UT and UTRF
When Schrick first developed his product, he said he wrote a USDA grant request for funding and sent proposals for preview to two parties. One of those proposals went to UT faculty member Steve Oliver.
“I found out I needed to file a disclosure and get it patented immediately,” Schrick says. John Hopkins at the UT Research Foundation helped him file a disclosure to avoid issues of prior art (i.e., technology that already exists in the public domain).
When he entered graduate school at Clemson University in 1985, Schrick says his priority was to do research and get it published as quickly as possible. He says it has been a different story working with UTRF.
“In 2004, when I started with the Research Foundation, they said to hold the papers for a bit, and get the patent process started first,” Schrick says. “I’ve changed my whole mindset.”
In 2008, Schrick’s product was licensed and on the market. Embryo Armor was officially patented in 2010.
Schrick says the company, Embryo Armor Technologies, has sold more than $2 million of product since its introduction to market in November 2008. Embryo Armor is offered in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and soon in Japan. The company is currently working in Australia on a certificate of analysis, which will authenticate Embryo Armor as synthetic and free of plant and animal parts.
Schrick says he has enjoyed working with the UT Research Foundation and is happy with the quality of people and the work they do. “The Foundation has been very much a part of our team, along with UTIA, AgResearch, and the animal science department,” he says. “They have been there from the initial disclosure and patent to getting it on the market.”
John Hopkins of the UT Research Foundation says Schrick’s product, like most university technologies, has taken time to develop, protect, and license. Schrick’s work should benefit society as a whole in the form of economic savings, Hopkins says.
“(Embryo Armor) benefits in the realm of efficient animal production,” Hopkins says. “It reduces the cost and increases the efficiency of reproductive activities and animal husbandry.”
Schrick says the product’s economic impact should be most evident in lowering food prices because there should be fewer attempts involving embryo transfer, and thus, the return is greater. Plus, the physical impact on the animals is reduced because fewer transfer attempts are needed.
According to Hopkins, this project has been challenging because of the recent economic slump, and financial difficulties have made the process a struggle for Schrick, Embryo Armor Technologies and all parties involved.
“There’s a lot of stress because you have high hopes for the technology and its application, so you think you’ve reached escape velocity, and then problems outside of the technology, such as a distribution deal, market acceptance, or manufacturing issues, may appear,” Hopkins says.
“Working with Schrick and his team has been a great experience, regardless of the ups and downs,” he says. “Neal is a well-established researcher. It’s always exciting to work with researchers who are passionate and at the top of their field, and that’s where Neal is.”