COLUMBIA, Mo. — Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) virus was first detected in the U.S. in 1987. Pigs that contract the disease have extreme difficulty reproducing, don’t gain weight and have a high mortality rate.
To date, no vaccine has been effective, and the disease costs North American farmers more than $660 million annually. A team of researchers from the University of Missouri, Kansas State University, and Genus plc have bred pigs that are not harmed by the disease.
“Once inside the pigs, PRRS needs some help to spread; it gets that help from a protein called CD163,” said Randall Prather, distinguished professor of animal sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Researchers were able to successfully breed a litter of pigs without this protein so when exposed to PRRS, the pigs did not get sick and the virus did not spread.
For years, scientists have been trying to determine how the virus infected pigs and how to stop it. It was previously believed that the virus entered pigs by being inhaled into the lungs, where it attached to a protein known as sialoadhesin on the surface of white blood cells in the lungs.
However, two years ago Prather’s group showed that elimination of sialoadhesin had no effect on susceptibility to PRRS. A second protein, called CD163, was thought to uncoat the virus and allow it to infect the pigs.
In their current study, Prather’s team worked to stop the pigs from producing CD163. “We edited the gene that makes the CD163 protein so the pigs could no longer produce it,” said Kristin Whitworth, co-author on the study and a research scientist in MU’s Division of Animal Sciences.
After infecting these pigs and a group of control pigs, the pigs without the protein did not get sick, she said. “This discovery could have enormous implications for pig producers and the food industry throughout the world.”
Along with resisting the virus, the pigs that didn’t produce CD163 showed no other changes in their development compared to pigs that produce the protein.
The University of Missouri has signed an exclusive global licensing deal for potential future commercialization of virus resistant pigs with the Genus, plc. If the development stage is successful, the commercial partner will seek any necessary approvals and registration from governments before a wider market release.
“The demonstration of genetic resistance to the PRRS virus by gene editing is a potential game changer for the pork industry,” said Jonathan Lightner, Chief Scientific Officer and Head of R&D of Genus plc. While there are some challenges to develop this technology commercially, Lightner expressed Genus’ commitment to further develop it.
“At the end of our study, we had been able to make pigs that are resistant to an incurable, untreatable disease,” said Kevin Wells, co-author of the study and assistant professor of animal sciences at MU. “This discovery could save the swine industry hundreds of millions of dollars every year. It also could have an impact on how we address other substantial diseases in other species.”
In addition to Whitworth and Wells, Prather’s research team included collaborators at Genus plc, and Kansas State University.
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