British scientists have engineered genetically modified chickens that are resistant to bird flu, claiming they have taken the first step in thwarting an illness that could one day set off a global pandemic.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge said they were able to breed chickens that didn’t transmit the avian flu to their neighbors – although they still got sick and died when exposed to the H5N1 virus.
The flu-resistant birds were bred with a piece of DNA that generates what researchers called a “decoy” molecule, which mimics an enzyme that is essential to the reproduction of the virus.
After breeding the genetically modified birds, researchers infected 10 of them and 10 normal chickens with the avian flu. They found that the transgenic birds did not infect healthy birds in the same pen with them.
Researchers still need to determine whether the transgenic chickens and their eggs would be safe for human consumption.
“Preventing virus transmission in chickens should reduce the economic impact of the disease and reduce the risk posed to people,” said Laurence Tiley, of Cambridge’s department of veterinary medicine, one of the study’s lead authors.
While H5N1 rarely infects people, it is highly deadly when it does. Experts fear that the virus will evolve into a form that can spread easily among people.
The study was published in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.