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COCCI People: Here we go again

New disease-management trends are helping researcher Greg Mathis return to what lured him into the poultry industry in the first place — coccidiosis.

Scan Greg Mathis’ resume and you’d swear he was put on earth to control coccidiosis in poultry.

Born in Gainesville, Georgia, the broiler capital of the world, Mathis has pretty much devoted most of his postgraduate and working career to coccidiosis, conducting trials and reporting results in dozens of publications, proceedings and abstracts over the past 25 years. He’s also an icon on the industry lecture circuit, presenting new information on coccidiosis management at poultry science meetings all around the world.

Between all his time at the computer and the podium, it’s a wonder Mathis has any time for his full-time job — president and owner of Southern Poultry Research, Inc., Athens, Georgia, an independent testing facility that animal health and nutrition companies flock to for objective, real-world trials that can make or break a new product or idea.

But don’t get the idea that Mathis’ distinguished career is fulfilling some kind of prophecy or lifelong ambition.

“There was no vision, no shining light coming down from the sky,” he insists, flashing his dry humor and selfeffacing demeanor. Instead, The Greg Mathis Story is one of happenstance and fascination with the Eimeria organism that causes coccidiosis in poultry.

Sucked in

“I went to a small college and got a bachelor’s degree in biology, but obviously, there wasn’t much I could do with that,” Mathis recalls. “I thought about becoming a vet, so I looked into the University of Georgia to see what they had available.”

As it turned out, the university’s poultry department had a few openings in its graduate program. “Also, a lot of the pre-vet advisors were into poultry, so I thought I’d go there and take some courses and then go on to vet school,” he says.

But Mathis was quickly sucked into the current of the poultry college, where coccidiosis legends Malcolm Reid, Joyce Johnson (as in the Reid- Johnson scale of scoring coccidial lesions) and eventually the UK’s Peter Long were teaming with rising stars like poultry science professor Larry McDougald to fine-tune diagnostic and control programs for this ubiquitous and costly disease.

“I really felt this was it — coccidiosis was what I wanted to do,” Mathis remembers. “All I knew is that I didn’t want to leave and go to vet school. I really wanted to finish what I was doing. I also felt like we were doingsomething that was making a real and immediate difference for producers.”

Mathis scrapped his plans for vet school, stayed at UGA and instead got his master’s and PhD in poultry science, all the while working with some of the top coccidiosis scientists in the industry.

Unfortunately, full-time job opportunities were limited at the university when he completed his post-graduate studies, so Mathis and McDougald started a company called Georgia Poultry Research. Its simple mission was to help animal health companies evaluate and register growth promotants and anticoccidial feed additives.

“We had been doing anticoccidial testing at the university and decided we could do it off-campus a lot easier and get out of the university’s way,” Mathis says. “It wasn’t that the university wasn’t interested, but those types of trials take up a lot of floor-pen space — and that’s space the university can use for basic research. It was a very active poultry department, and they really couldn’t justify putting commercial studies into their houses. So Larry and I saw a need for an independent testing facility. We did anticoccidial FDA clearance work almost exclusively for about 4 or 5 years.”

On his own

Mathis eventually bought out McDougald, who was still working at the university, and changed the company’s name to Southern Poultry Research — a move that helped to separate it from the university and broaden its geographic reach.

Now in its twentieth year, the research company has its own feed mill with six storage bins, four floor-pen houses (each in separate locations for biosecurity), a climate-controlled battery cage facility with uniform temperature and illumination, a laboratory, a hatchery and a room full of fireproof file cabinets storing two decades of trials and FDA submissions.

The company, which Mathis owns and manages with Sally — his wife of 20 years who manages the Quality Assurance end of the company, including the large volume of paperwork that goes with every trial — still helps the animal health industry evaluate and register new products and claims. In the 1990s, however, Southern Poultry Research expanded its research services to include nutrition, infectious diseases and genetics.

“I didn’t want to get away from coccidiosis, but things quieted down in the early 1990s as Europe started banning feed additives. The drug companies were understandably more reluctant to invest in new additives that might not have a chance of getting approved,” Mathis says. “I really don’t see that changing, either. In terms of new feed additives in the United States, it’s been Clinacox (diclazuril) — and that’s about it. I don’t see anything else coming.”

Nevertheless, Mathis is pleased that coccidiosis is once again the focus of many animal health companies’ research programs.

“The growth of Coccivac-B and the industry’s recent shift toward vaccinating for coccidiosis has totally changed the game,” he says. “Now you have animal health companies wanting to do trials to see how their drugs, nutraceuticals or other additives perform in a program with the vaccine. Suddenly, there are a lot of new programs and options for managing coccidiosis — and that’s exciting.”

For Mathis, it’s almost as if the industry has wound back the clock 20 years, even though it’s actually moving forward with strategic, integrated coccidiosis programs that address costs, resistance issues and consumer concerns about drugs being used in livestock and poultry production. These new mandates are also hatching some innovative research with landmark results.

“Last year’s study showing how Coccivac-B can restore the efficacy of Clinacox and other anticoccidials was probably one of the most coccidiosissignificant studies I’ve been involved with in the last 20 years (CocciForum, No 7, p. 4),” Mathis says.

“Over the next 5 years, I don’t think we’ll see any new breakthrough products for coccidiosis, but we will see the industry learn to do a better job using the products that are available to it now. We still have a lot of work to do.” Passing it on Mathis plans to play a big role in that education effort. He says he likes doing research that yields “practical information that poultry companies can use now” and then presenting it at industry meetings.

“If I had to pick something, I think my greatest contribution has been getting information out to the industry on how things work, and getting people to think about what they’re doing so they can do a better job controlling coccidiosis,” he adds. “There are a lot of new disease concerns in the poultry industry, but there’s only one disease that’s found in every chicken house in the world — and that’s coccidiosis. It’ll always be here.”

No chance of coccidiosis ever being eradicated?

“There’s never been a drug that could kill it all off without running into some resistance issues,” he says. “Europe has tried disinfecting, but cleaning out houses can, in some ways, even make coccidiosis worse.”

Mathis isn’t complaining, however. “It’s frustrating that we can’t eliminate coccidiosis, but I’m not sure I’d want it to disappear anyway. That would be bad for my business, and then I might have to look for a real job.”

Source: CocciForum Issue No.8, Schering-Plough Animal Health.

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