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Can Bird Flu-Resistant Chickens be Developed?

14 June 2012, at 3:52pm

ANALYSIS - Could the answer to breeding a bird that is resistant to bird flu be drawing near? According to researchers at Roslin Institute at Edinburgh University in Scotland and Cambridge University, the day could be drawing near, writes Chris Harris.

The research in to genetically modifying chickens that did not pass on avian influenza was reported about two years ago.

But since that breakthrough, everything appears to have gone quiet on the research.

The original research developed genetically modified (transgenic) chickens that do not transmit avian influenza to other chickens with which they are in contact.

The genetic modification has the potential to stop bird flu outbreaks spreading within poultry flocks.

At the time, the scientists said that the breakthrough would not only protect the health of domestic poultry but could also reduce the risk of bird flu epidemics leading to new flu virus epidemics in the human population.

To produce these chickens, the Cambridge and Edinburgh scientists introduced a new gene that manufactures a small "decoy" molecule that mimics an important control element of the bird flu virus. The replication machinery of the virus is tricked into recognising the decoy molecule instead of the viral genome and this interferes with the replication cycle of the virus.

When the transgenic chickens were infected with avian flu, they became sick but did not transmit the infection on to other chickens kept in the same pen with them. This was the case even if the other chickens were normal (non-transgenic) birds.

The next steps in the research were expected to be the development of birds that not only did not pass on the virus but were also resistant.

However, the research hit funding problems and little has been heard on the matter since.

Now, the research team is hopeful of gaining new funding within the next few months that will enable them to carry on the research to develop birds that are resistant to avian flu H5N1.

Professor Helen Sang, from The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, said that her research colleagues at Cambridge, headed by Dr Laurence Tiley, had been developing transgenic models in the lab and the results of the trials with cells in culture had been encouraging.

"We have had some trials that look encouraging, but we won't know until we have carried out trials in birds," Professor Sang said.

She said that the research team is hoping for more funding to come through later this year and then the trials with birds can be started.

If the trials prove successful, the prospect of a commercialised avian flu resistant bird could have huge potential for the industry. However, the question of genetic modification always runs the risk of public rejection.

The outcry that has surrounded trials of GM crops in the UK in recent months, let alone the public uproar criticism that followed the news that products from genetically modified dairy cattle could have entered the food chain places big question marks over how a transgenic avian flu resistant chicken will be received.

When the initial research was published in 2010, the research team said that they felt that the public reaction would be positive and good.

The researchers said: "We believe the attitude of the UK public to GM food depends on the nature and purpose of the genetic modification. Disease resistance is clearly a beneficial characteristic for animal welfare and public health.

"The public's awareness of the global threat of influenza is high. We hope that examples that demonstrate clear consumer benefits with no inherent risk will encourage constructive debate about the potential of GM food in the future.

"Ultimately the British public will need to see how they benefit from eating genetically modified food, before they are likely to make the decision to do so."

Professor Sang said: "Using genetic modification to introduce genetic changes that cannot be achieved by animal breeding demonstrates the potential of GM to improve animal welfare in the poultry industry. This work could also form the basis for improving economic and food security in many regions of the world where bird flu is a significant problem."

And she told ThePoultrySite that she felt the public was prepared "to consider this an option" and felt the trials were well worthwhile continuing.

Certainly, if successful, this research could have dramatic benefits not only for the poultry industry but for other livestock sectors as the research team believes that the same techniques can be adapted for other species and other requirements and disease - but only if the public can be convinced first.