Scientists in Great Britain have recently discovered that they can partially protect chickens from being infected with bird flu by editing their genes. This signals a new potential strategy to reduce the spread of the deadly virus.
Highly pathogenic avian influenza, known as bird flu, has spread across the globe since 2022, killing millions of poultry birds and making the prices of egg and turkey to skyrocket.
Although the current strain has not caused significant disease to humans, experts warn that mutations could potentially threaten a human pandemic.
Researchers have said that they used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to make specific changes to a gene called ANP32 that is essential to support flu viruses inside chickens’ cells. CRISPR is a type of molecular “scissors” technology that scientists can use to edit DNA.
Flu viruses hijack proteins like ANP32 inside cells to help themselves reproduce, and the chicken’s edits were designed to stop the growth of bird flu.
Slight increase in cases tend to happen during the spring and autumn migration of wild birds that transmit the virus, and the U.S. last week had its first case since April in a commercial flock.
“Experiments showed that almost all the gene-edited chickens were resistant to lower doses of a less deadly form of bird flu than the H5N1 strain that has circulated the globe recently,” said Wendy Barclay, a flu expert and professor at the Imperial College of London.
“When birds were exposed to much higher levels of the virus, though, about half of the gene-edited chickens had breakthrough infections,” she said.
“We can move toward making chickens resistant to the virus but we’re not there yet. We would need more edits – more robust edits – to really shut down the virus replication.”
“And now, researchers are of the opinion that making three specific genetic changes to chickens’ cells will better protect birds. They, however, have not bred chickens with three edits yet,” said Helen Sang, who previously studied genetically modifying chickens against bird flu at the University of Edinburgh.