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Gene technology has potential to multiply vaccine benefits

Scientists in the UK have discovered a way to modify a Marek’s disease vaccination so that it could be potentially be used to protect against a number of significant poultry diseases.

Researchers at the Pirbight Institute in Surrey, England, used gene-editing technology to alter the genetic makeup of a Marek’s disease vaccine, enabling it to protect birds against infectious bursal disease (IBD).

Now the scientists believe they could use the same technology — known as CRISPR/cas9 — to edit vaccines so they could protect against multiple diseases, such as avian influenza and Newcastle disease.

In a study published in the journal Vaccine, the researchers explained that by genetically modifying vaccines it could be possible to significantly reduce the number of vaccines birds are given.

Not only would this reduce producer costs, but bird health and welfare would also be improved, they said. The research, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, saw the team add a gene of the IBD virus into a current Marek’s disease vaccine virus.

Other vaccines exist that achieve a similar result, but by using the CRISPR/cas9 technology — a tool that enables scientists to cut cell DNA precisely — the team has been able to insert the IBD gene more quickly and accurately than previous methods.

The technique means scientists will need significantly less time to create new vaccines, which will help protect poultry more quickly against new strains of disease.

Professor Venugopal Nair, joint leader of the research, said the technology dramatically increases the scope of how Marek’s disease vaccine can be edited to include other virus components.

“Now we have shown that the gene-edited vaccine protects against both Marek’s disease and IBD, we are looking at inserting more genes from other viruses,” he said.

The team’s next move is to incorporate Newcastle disease and avian influenza into the vaccine. Ways to quickly modify the vaccines based on emerging new strains of disease are also being explored.

There is huge interest in the technology, and the hope is to partner with vaccine companies to commercialise the technology for poultry producers, Nair added.

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