SILOAM SPRINGS, Ark. — Scientists from the Roslin Institute released research that it prevented the avian influenza (AI) virus from replicating in lab-grown chicken cells, which means it could be possible to produce chickens that are resistant to the disease in the future.

The study was funded by Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council with additional funding from Cobb-Vantress Inc. The Roslin Institute, based out of the United Kingdom, conducted the study in 2018 and the results were published in eLife.

“Avian influenza resistance in broiler production is of global significance,” said Rachel Hawken, senior director of genomics and quantitative genetics at Cobb-Vantress. “This research is an important step toward that goal. It’s exciting for Cobb to be a part of exploring new technologies that could be used to advance poultry breeding in the future.”

The research team prevented the avian influenza virus from replicating by using gene-editing techniques to delete a section of chicken DNA inside lab-grown cells. Researchers targeted a specific molecule inside chicken cells called ANP32A, which the influenza virus takes over to help replicate itself. Following the removal of the ANP32A, the virus could no longer grow inside cells with the genetic change.

In early research, the Roslin Institute, in collaboration with experts from Cambridge Univ., previously produced chickens that did not transmit avian influenza to other chickens following infection using genetic modification techniques. This new approach is unique because it does not involve introducing new genetic material into the bird’s DNA.

“This is an important advance that suggests we may be able to use gene-editing techniques to produce chickens that are resistant to avian influenza,” said Helen Sang, professor at The Roslin Institute. “We haven’t produced any birds yet and we need to check if the DNA change has any other effects on the bird cells before we can take this next step.”

Millions of chickens can be lost any time there is a global Avian influenza threat and can severely disrupt poultry production. Severe strains have the potential to kill entire flocks and, in rare instances, certain strains of the virus can infect people, causing serious illness.

Cobb-Vantress said it has invested in the genomic research field for years using individual DNA information and individual performance measures to calculate a measure of genetic merit.

“Genomics has allowed us to incorporate new programs into our research, opening new unexplored opportunities to improve our broilers for the future markets,” Hawken said. “We’re committed to serving our customers using innovative research and technology to make protein healthy and affordable to everyone.”