Transfer Factor – An effective way to prevent disease

By: Heather Smith Thomas

p28 21.3Cattle producers deal with disease by vaccination for prevention, and anti-microbial drugs for treatment. The use of drugs is questioned today however, due to increasing numbers of drug-resistant pathogens, and the issue of drug residues in meat if drugs are not used appropriately.

Some beef producers and veterinarians are looking at alternatives to antimicrobial use. A bright spot in this quest is immune system enhancement and the role of transfer factors. If the immune status of animals can be enhanced, disease is less likely to occur, and if they do get sick, severity and duration of disease can be reduced–without as much antimicrobial treatment.

Dr. Steve Slagle, a veterinarian in Granite Bay, California, has been using a transfer factor product in his practice since 1999. “This is a natural immune enhancer and derives its efficacy from a protein produced by the immune system’s T lymphocytes. This transfer factor is also found in cow colostrum. To create human and animal products, the protein is extracted from colostrum,” he explains.

The body’s immune system produces memory molecules whenever it is exposed to disease or receives vaccination. These bioactive peptides are transfer factors and passed from cow to calf via colostrum. This transfer educates the immune response cells of the newborn calf. 

Immunities can be transferred from one person to another by blood transfusions. In 1949, Dr. H. Sherwood Lawrence, a researcher working on tuberculosis in humans, found he could transfer immunity to patients by using dialyzed leukocytes. When this extract was taken from a blood donor resistant to the pathogen and injected into a patient that had no immunity, the immunity of the donor was transferred to the naïve patient. Part of the lymphocyte (white blood cell) contained what Lawrence dubbed “transfer factor.”

Research was conducted during the 1950’s through 1970’s then nearly halted because the world’s blood supply was becoming contaminated by HIV and hepatitis C virus and the only known source of transfer factor was blood. Also, more exciting new discoveries revolved around antimicrobials.

The phenomenon of transfer factor was not actively pursued again until the late 1980’s when researchers discovered that bovine colostrum contains significant amounts of this ingredient that stimulates both humoral and cellular immunity. Veterinary researchers observed a large number of lymphcytic cells in colostrum, and discovered that transfer factor is a lymphokine—one of the protein messengers released by antigen-sensitized lymphocytes (white blood cells). 

Chicken eggs also contain transfer factors and the combination from eggs and colostrum increases effectiveness by 185 percent. A veterinary product called Livestock Stress Formula was created by Dr. Joe Ramaekers, and is now used in cattle during stress periods to help prevent illness. “If we give it to newborn calves, it’s the equivalent of 6 to 8 gallons of colostrum in terms of protective factors,” says Slagle. “At weaning they are often 5 to 10 percent heavier than calves that did not receive the product—depending on how stressed the animals are during early weeks of life,” he says. Some producers use the product to prevent scours in baby calves.

If calves receive the product at weaning (another stress period), they typically gain 1/2 to one pound more per day during preconditioning or in a feedlot. Feedlot introduction is probably the most stressful thing calves experience.

“With use of this product, death loss is often reduced to near zero, because the ones that do get sick don’t get that sick,” says Slagle.    

Feedlot studies

“We did our first feedlot study with a professor in the veterinary school in Missouri. We took 240 head of 440-450 pound calves off wheat grass and transported them 40 miles to the feedlot. Our study compared this product with Micotil, when Micotil first came out. We treated 80 calves with our product and 80 with the new antibiotic and 80 with nothing. They’d all been vaccinated and dewormed coming into the feedlot. Calves that received our product had no illness, the Micotil group had 12 treats and the control group 17 treats. Ours gained 3/4 pound per day more than the Micotil group,” says Slagle.

“Then we did a study at Kansas State University with 750 stressed cattle that came from multiple sources in the South. Some were already sick when they arrived. We did the same basic study, with 250 head in each group, but our calves didn’t do any better than the other 2 groups,” he says.

“We found that the key ingredient in our product was destroyed in the rumen by rumen bacteria. The calves in the first study where it worked so well weren’t stressed. Unstressed calves have a rumen by-pass mechanism in which about 20 percent of some feeds bypass the rumen. That’s what gave us those great results,” says Slagle.

By contrast, in the second study the highly stressed calves’ bypass mechanism was non-existent. “Our ingredient got destroyed before it could be utilized by the immune system. With more research, Dr. Ramaekers designed a coated product that could get through the rumen,” says Slagle.

“The other thing we found is that it should be given two days in a row. But nobody wants to catch baby calves twice or run cattle through a chute 2 days in a row.  So a formula was developed with half as immediate release and half as delayed release,” says Slagle.  This is just as effective as giving two doses, but with less labor, and less stress on the animals.

“Transfer factors are like an instant temporary vaccine. This protein attaches to T-lymphocytes which are the master immune cells that recognize pathogens. When they take in this protein, it’s like an identification molecule. It will recognize Salmonella for instance, and tell the immune system there’s a problem that needs to be taken care of.  So the immune system targets that pathogen and sets in motion an immune response to destroy it,” he explains.     

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