Sniff Test: Local startup studies the science behind freshening dog breath

Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona
UA assistant professor Eric Lyons (left) and business development professional Scott Zentack in their new lab space at the University of Arizona Center for Innovation at Oro Valley.

We ask our dogs a lot of questions, and oftentimes “Who’s a good boy?” is second only to “Oh no, what did you eat?” Oro Valley’s bioscience industry has gained a new member with uPetsia, a University of Arizona startup that has developed a bacteria strain to quell bad breath in dogs.

uPetsia’s technology was developed by two associate professors out of the UA’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The idea dates back to a Thanksgiving with friends. Co-founder Eric Lyons recalls friends and family sitting around a campfire with their dogs, and everyone started talking about how dogs had horrible breath. Eventually, this turned into guessing whose had the worst breath, and if breed or body size affected their breath.

“And I thought to myself, I bet we can come up with some technology to solve bad breath in dogs,” associate professor Lyons said. “I kept thinking about it when I got back to the office. That was the genesis of this technology, which is to screen and cultivate, and look at the naturally occurring bacteria in the mouths of dogs. Looking for ones that are safe and effective that we can work with in the lab that don’t carry antibiotic resistance genes, and see if we can genetically engineer some synthetic pathways to produce nice aromas like mint smell.”

Lyons submitted his idea to UA, and caught the attention of the university’s commercialization office, Tech Launch Arizona. TLA then gave uPetsia a business development grant to move from concept to research.

uPetsia’s argument is that traditional breath fresheners are only effective in the minutes after use, but introducing bacteria that produce mint smell can last far longer.

“With toothpaste and mouthwash, you have fresh breath for about 20 minutes. It’s the same thing for dogs,” Lyons said. “When they chew on something, it scrapes the plaque and tartar off the teeth. Some products have mint to help give them fresh breath. But as soon as that clears the oral cavity, that freshness diminishes very quickly. The difference here is that our bacteria establish small colonies in the mouth, and during their lifetime that lasts about two hours, they are producing that mint aroma.”

Lyons realized that to be successful, he’d need to work with a business professional who can translate scientific advancements into a market-ready product, and called in longtime collaborator Scott Zentack.

“As soon as he told me the idea, I thought it was phenomenal and was on-board,” Zentack said. “That was almost three years ago, and it’s been a really fun ride… It comes down to the fact that it persists, and persists longer than other products. Ideally, we’d like to get to a point where you feed a treat to your dog in the morning, and it still has fresh breath when you come home from work.”

The mint smell in question is methyl salicylate, an organic compound commonly used for fragrance and flavor. uPetsia co-inventor and fellow associate professor David Baltrus scanned through “hundreds if not thousands” of bacteria to find a type with the correct properties to engineer the production of the minty methyl salicylate. The engineering is done in the bacteria’s plasmids, small DNA molecules similar to chromosomes. While methyl salicylate has been linked to cases of toxicity in humans, this is often due to the overuse of topical pain-relief products.

“We basically synthetically engineered this pathway, and then we optimized it for use within these bacteria, and ordered stretches of DNA that contain the genes that we want to, and stitch them to a plasmid and put that plasmid in the bacteria,” Lyons said. “It’s very similar to thinking about it in terms of a computer code: there’s the bacterial program running on the bacterial chromosome, and then we have this little tiny program made up of a couple of genes that is there to make methyl salicylate.”

To test the aroma-producing capabilities of the new bacteria, Lyons and Baltrus measured out a set amount of bacteria, put it on treats and fed them to dogs, then swabbed the dogs’ mouths immediately and every few hours after to find out how long the bacteria stuck around.

“The University has a very stringent program for how to work with animals. But when it came to the first batch of dogs, these were our dogs,” Lyons said. “While the University was incredibly stringent in terms of their safety and control, the real person I had to contend with was my wife.”

Lyons says they used four testing methods to detect the bacteria’s presence in their dogs’ mouths: using scientific instruments to detect the bacteria themselves, recovering the bacteria out of the dogs’ mouths, and using molecular markers as an additional confirmation of bacteria. But in addition to these more advanced processes, the classic sniff test also played a role. They were able to detect the specialized bacteria and methyl salicylate production for 90 minutes to two hours after feeding the dogs. Of course, this time range can be reduced by dogs quickly scarfing down their treats.

“Our main concern with this bacteria is, because we’re going in there and re-engineering to divert their internal metabolic energy to produce mint smell, it’s going to make them a little weaker,” Lyons said. “Bacteria are constantly battling it out on animals, so if you bring in one that’s a little weaker, how fast are they going to get outcompeted?”

Looking ahead, uPetsia (which comes from the word eupepsia, meaning “good digestion”) aims to increase the longevity of their bacteria, potentially by three or four hours.

“Our ultimate goal is to make a product that’s made for pets and the people who love them,” Zentack said. “Dogs are part of their families and our families, so we want the consumers to understand that we’re being very safe.”

uPetsia recently gained a major business boost in winning the University of Arizona Center for Innovation’s Sponsored Launch Fueled by the Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce competition, which grants uPetsia business support and one year of admission to the new Center for Innovation in Oro Valley.

“It was perfect. We were looking at lab space at the time this came up, so we did a pitch for the competition and were selected,” Zentack said.

UACI has hosted multiple Sponsored Startups throughout the region, partnering with the likes of Perkins Coie law firm and the Town of Sahuarita.

uPetsia recently moved into the Oro Valley office, which includes office space and lab space for research and development. The Center for Innovation at Oro Valley serves as a business incubator and connection between UA and Oro Valley’s own bioscience industries. The Center, located in Oro Valley’s Innovation Park, is located close to Roche Tissue Diagnostics and UA’s new veterinary school, providing opportunities for collaboration throughout the region.

“We’re working on the bacteria. We don’t want to be a treat producer or a food producer. So we’re working with people that can help us understand how to incorporate this into pet foods,” Zentack said. “Our plan is to grow this bacteria in bulk and supply it to a treat maker, then they would incorporate it into their manufacturing process.”

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