British scientists hope that chicken edited by genes will help ward off the next pandemic


British scientists are developing chicken edited genes designed to be truly resistant to flu in a new approach to try to stop the next deadly human pandemic.

The first transgenic chicks will be hatched later this year at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said Wendy Barclay, a professor of virology at Imperial College London who co-led the project.

Bird DNA has been modified using a new gene editing technology known as CRISPR. In this case "editing" is to remove parts of the protein where the flu virus usually depends, making the chickens truly resistant to flu.

The idea is to produce birds that can't catch the flu and will form a "buffer between wild birds and humans," Barclay said.

Scientists fear that the next pandemic will be caused by a type of deadly flu that jumps from wild birds to birds to humans. (James Akena / Reuters)

Global health specialists and infectious diseases cite the threat of a human flu pandemic as one of their biggest concerns.

The number of victims in the last flu pandemic in 2009-10 – caused by H1N1 types and considered relatively mild – is around half a million people worldwide. The historic 1918 Spanish Flu killed around 50 million people.

If we can prevent the spread of influenza viruses from wild birds to chickens, we will stop the next pandemic at the source– Wendy Barclay, professor of virology, Imperial College London

The biggest fear now is that lethal strains can jump from wild birds through birds to humans, and then mutate into pandemic air forms that can easily spread between humans.

"If we can prevent the spread of influenza viruses from wild birds to chickens, we will stop the next pandemic at the source," Barclay said.

In a study published in 2016 in the journal Nature, the Barclay team found that a gene in chickens called ANP32 encodes proteins where all flu viruses depend on infecting hosts. Laboratory tests on cells that lack genes show that they cannot be infected with the flu.

Working with scientists at Roslin, Barclay said the plan was to use CRISPR to edit the chicks' DNA so that only one part of the main protein was changed, so that the remaining birds were exactly the same, genetically, as before.

"We have identified the smallest change that will stop the virus in its tracks," he said.

The chickens are produced at the Roslin Institute, Scotland, where scientists created the world's first cloned sheep, Dolly. (Jeff J Mitchell / Reuters)

Roslin Institute scientists gained fame in 1996 as the creators of "Dolly the sheep," the world's first cloned animal. They also created a gene-edited pig to make it immune to viruses.

Barclay said one of the biggest obstacles to this approach was the concern of poultry producers about public acceptance. "People eat food from livestock that has been changed by decades of traditional breeding," he said. "But they might be nervous about eating edited genes."


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