Biosys Inc. of Columbia yesterday hooked up with a major British chemical and drug company to produce a new pesticide that kills caterpillars using biology rather than chemistry, setting the stage for the product to reach the market by next year.
Biosys' deal with a unit of Zeneca Group PLC calls for Zeneca to take over much of the most expensive work of developing products based on the celery looper virus, which was first discovered by U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists and later licensed to Biosys.
The insecticide is made by injecting caterpillars with the virus, named for the type of caterpillar in which it was first found, and waiting for it to multiply in the bugs' bodies. After the caterpillar dies, scientists extract the virus to get the active ingredient for the planned product. The company is trying to develop a method to grow the virus in laboratory dishes more easily and cheaply.
The virus poses no hazard to humans, Biosys said.
"The market we are going after is dominated by chemical insecticides," said Mark Beach, director of field development and regulatory affairs at Biosys, who said farmers worldwide spend about $500 million annually to combat caterpillars. The pesticide will be used on cotton, vegetable, soybean, fruit and rice crops.
Biosys Chief Financial Officer Mike Thomas said the company expects to report sales of celery looper virus-based pesticides by 1996.
Zeneca will market the products worldwide after they are fully developed. In the meantime, it will support research at Biosys, conduct field trials of the pesticides for effectiveness and manage relations with pesticide regulators outside the United States. Biosys will manufacture the product for Zeneca.
"We're looking for access to a line of biopesticide products that we don't market in America," said Glen Johnson, manager of acquisitions and licensing for Zeneca's U.S. agricultural division.
Mr. Johnson said biopesticides have been slow to displace chemicals because early generations of products have been less effective than chemicals.
But companies such as Biosys believe that the greater environmental safety of biological agents will become a key marketing edge once researchers find ways to make the biopesticides equally effective.