A group of researchers at Imperial College London used complicated genetics techniques to ensure that laboratory-grown chicken cells could successfully fight the avian influenza virus. This new step forward once again raises the fateful question of whether genetically modified chickens can be created, even for human consumption, to resist this widespread disease affecting birds.
At the moment no live chicken has been born with these genetic modifications but this could be the next step of the team of scientists. Specifically, the researchers, with the help of genetic experts from the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, have eliminated a particular section of DNA from chickens within cells of the same grown in the laboratory. This section of DNA is responsible for the creation of a particular molecule that is in turn exploited by the virus to spread.
The molecule targeted by British researchers, called ANP32A, is the one that is used by the avian influenza virus. The latter, in fact, hijacks this very molecule and attacks it in order to replicate faster. Once this section was eliminated, the virus was no longer able to grow inside the cells. This technique could be used to limit the spread of this disease, which is very serious for birds but can also take root, although rarely, in humans.
According to Mike McGrew, of the Roslin Institute, it is a “major advance that suggests that we may be able to use genetic modification techniques to produce chickens resistant to avian influenza. We haven’t yet produced birds and we need to see if DNA change has other effects on bird cells before we can take the next step.”