June 26, 2014 in Washington Voices

Unusual jobs: Painstaking extraction contributes allergens for prescriptions

By The Spokesman-Review
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Charity Picicci, a manufacturing specialist at Jubilant HollisterStier, extracts yellow hornet venom sacs June 18 that will be used in the production of an allergy therapy drug for those allergic to bee stings.
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About this feature

This summer, the Voices will take a look at people with unusual jobs.

If you have an idea for us, email voice@spokesman.com.

Depending on demand, Charity Picicci, Veronica Bowley and Sarah Luding can be found inside a room at Jubilant HollisterStier Allergy plucking the venom sacs out of yellow jackets, hornets or wasps.

The insects are already dead – they’ve been frozen and partially thawed before they land on the three women’s desks in bags of 300.

“It’s kind of like an accordion,” Picicci, lead technician, explained of the yellow hornet’s abdomen, pulling and pushing it lengthwise before she demonstrated pulling out the sac.

It’s just part of what the three women do as part of raw materials and extraction in the company, which makes powdered forms of allergens for physicians to prescribe to patients in need of immunotherapy.

“It’s not easy to be here all day doing something this monotonous,” said senior supervisor Caleb Ray.

Ray said the treatment works much like how smallpox was treated – a small amount of the allergen is injected into the patient regularly over time to help build immunity.

The allergens are also used during skin tests to find out what a patient is allergic to.

In the storage room at the company, there are hundreds of jars of allergens: dog, cat, cattle, horse, duck, goose and chicken feathers, baker’s yeast, nuts, beef, clams, lobster, crab, trees, dust mites, molds, oranges and strawberries, to name a few.

Drying the proteins into a powder increases the shelf life of the allergen to about five years. Different allergens go through different processes to get into powder form.

For the dog allergen powder, for instance, dog fur is collected from local veterinarians and sold to HollisterStier after testing for diseases. One plastic garbage can – or nearly 200 pounds – of dog fur is enough for one batch – about a half pound – of powder.

Ray said fluid is poured on the hair, which then sits for three to five days. They pour the liquid into a large centrifuge. The proteins in the hair come out with the liquid as it is poured out of the machine and run through a filter.

“It smells like wet dog,” Ray said.

The liquid is then poured into tubing that hangs in a cage. The technicians force air through the tubing and any water evaporates, which concentrates the solution.

Workers then pour acetone on the solution, which further separates the proteins. It is now in a solid form. They dry it for a few days in a chamber that is temperature- and pressure-controlled.

Picicci, Bowley and Luding all came to HollisterStier as temporary employees and were eventually made full time.

Each of them works in various ways processing different allergens.

“They are very much jacks-of-all-trades,” Ray said.

The three technicians have also been tested for allergies since they work with the raw materials. They also wear hair covers, lab coats, gloves, booties and safety glasses.

As for removing the venom sacs of insects, the technicians work with five kinds of yellow jackets, four kinds of wasps, a yellow hornet and a white-faced hornet, also called a bald-faced hornet. The insects are harvested from different places in the United States.

The business also makes a honey bee powder, but doesn’t harvest the venom at HollisterStier. The venom comes to them in crystal form after the bees are placed on an electrified plate, which knocks out the venom from the bee without killing it.

“It’s nice that we don’t have to kill them,” Ray said.

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