British researchers are genetically engineering flu-resistant chickens in an effort to prevent the next deadly human flu pandemic.
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Study co-leader, Wendy Barclay (Imperial College London), says the first of the gene-edited chicks will hatch later this year at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute.
The researchers have used CRISPR technology to remove parts of a protein the flu virus usually depends on to infect a host, thereby rendering the chickens completely resistant.
The idea is to engineer poultry that cannot acquire flu and would form a “buffer” between wild birds and humans, says Barclay.
Experts in global health and infectious disease say the global human flu pandemic represents one of their greatest fears. If the virus jumps from wild birds via poultry to humans, it could then mutate into a pandemic airborne form that is easily transmitted amongst humans.
“If we could prevent influenza virus crossing from wild birds into chickens, we would stop the next pandemic at source,” says Barclay.
In a 2016 Nature article, Barclay’s team described a gene present in chickens that codes for a protein all flu viruses use to infect a host. When knock-out cells that did not contain the gene were engineered, laboratory tests showed that they could not be infected by the flu virus.
In a collaboration with Roslin researchers, Barclay plans to use CRISPR technology to edit just one small part of the flu-binding protein, so that the rest of the bird remains the same, genetically, as it was before: “We have identified the smallest change that will stop the virus in its tracks.”
However, Barclay points out that one of the biggest barriers to this approach is going to be the concern amongst poultry producers that the public will reject the idea: “People eat food from farmed animals that have been altered by decades of traditional breeding, but they might be nervous about eating gene edited food,” she concludes.