A team of scientists from the Roslin Institute, the VLA and Cambridge vet school have genetically modified chickens to stop the transmission of avian influenza.

A team of scientists from the Roslin Institute, the VLA and Cambridge vet school have genetically modified (GM) chickens to stop the transmission of avian influenza.

The news has been welcomed by public health vets, who hope the same technology could be used to tackle ‘flu in other species and safeguard food production around the world.

GM chickens could stop the transmission of avian influenza.Cambridge-based researchers created a gene able to produce “decoy” molecules that interfere with the replication of avian influenza. The Roslin team then inserted the gene into test chickens that were challenged with the virus at VLA labs.

While the animals showed clinical signs of the disease they did not spread it to other transgenic birds or their unaltered neighbours.

Co-researcher Helen Sang, from the Roslin Institute, said the technology could target strains of influenza in other species and that the decoy concept could also be applied to other viruses.

“It would require different sequencing but it’s the same approach,” she said. “It could have a global impact on animal health but that will depend on breeding companies and producers and authorities taking the technology up and people being willing to eat these products.

Researcher Helen Sang from the Roslin Institute.However, she said: “We didn’t see any difference in our genetically modified birds to the normal ones in terms of food safety – if the method was eventually licensed I’d be happy to eat one of the birds for my Sunday lunch!”

Dr Sang admits the technology is still in its infancy but said the researchers were looking to take the project further and identify exactly what was stopping viral replication, with the aim of making the GM birds totally resistant to ‘flu.

BVA past president Bill Reilly said the research was “very interesting and exciting” and had the potential to reduce animal disease worldwide and improve food production.

However, Prof Reilly urged caution with the technology’s development and said it should be carefully tested to prevent introducing anything that might impact on food safety.

He added: “My slight concern is that in inserting a new gene we don’t inadvertently insert other genes whose affects we are unaware of, but I am confident we will have robust mechanisms to test that.”

  • The research paper Suppression of avian influenza transmission in genetically modified chickens has been published in the most recent edition of the journal Science.
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