Can CRISPR engineer immunity to avian flu in chickens?

Avian flu in chickens can kill millions of birds and cost billions in damages. Can genetic engineering help?

Avian influenza viruses are rightly feared for their pandemic potential. No one wants a repeat of the 18 deaths avian flu caused in Hong Kong in 1997 — much less the 50 million deaths in 1918.

But the most immediate threat is avian flu in chickens, not humans. The 2015 avian influenza outbreak in the U.S. cost over $3 billion, as millions of birds were culled. 

Now, Israeli firm eggXYt (you’ll get it in a second; read that name again) is hoping to use genetic engineering to produce chickens resistant to bird flu. 

The 2015 avian influenza outbreak in the U.S. cost over $3 billion, as millions of birds were culled. 

“Early on, we identified disease prevention in poultry as a problem worth solving,” eggXYt co-founder and CEO Yehuda Elram told Poultry World

“With AI (avian influenza) in particular, whenever an outbreak is reported, typically all birds within a certain radius must be culled by law, regardless of whether or not they have been infected.” 

In U.S. farms, in 2015, that meant 50 million birds, Elram said.

To prevent that from happening again — not to mention preventing the virus from jumping species into humans — eggXYt has licensed GEiGS, a CRISPR gene editing technology from Tropic Biosciences, to “develop genetic resistance in chickens against Avian Influenza virus,” according to their joint press release.

The tech was originally developed to create tropical plants more resistant to disease. It “harnesses naturally occurring defense mechanisms to directly attack disease agents,” Tropic co-founder and CSO Eyal Maori said in the press release.

GEiGS uses a badass-sounding technique, known as RNA silencing or RNA interference (RNAi). RNAi is effectively a “mute button” for certain genes — intercepting genetic orders and erasing them before the cell can turn them into proteins. 

Animals and plants already use RNAi to regulate their own genes — turning down the volume on some protein, for example.

eggXYt will edit the chicken genome to create RNAi that silences genetic orders that come from the influenza virus. In theory, destroying orders from the virus means that it can’t hijack cells to reproduce, leaving the chickens effectively immune to infection.

“We will redirect these genes to target the virus itself, preventing it from replicating in the cell. The value of this platform is that the changes made to the genome are minimal; we hope this will accelerate regulatory approval processes and allow us to bring our product to the market,” Elram told Poultry World.

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