The use of genome editing in animal research is fast gaining traction in Africa. A number of countries on the continent are now positioning themselves to embrace gene technologies as several genome editing projects take shape. These technologies hold a huge potential to develop homegrown solutions to food insecurity and climate change. 

Dr. Alewo Idoko-Akoh is among African scientists using a gene technology in their research. Dr. Akoh, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, is working on a project that uses genome editing tools to develop bird flu resistant chicken. In an exclusive interview with the DrumBeat, the young scientist talks about the project.

  1. Tell us about your journey into the science of genome editing?

I started studying genome editing in 2015 and particularly focused on the use of a genome editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9, which was first introduced as a tool in 2012. I was one of the early set of students to try and develop the use of this specific technology in chicken. There was a call for students to come and engage in PhD studies using CRISPR-Cas9 on livestock and I was one of the successful applicants. I got the opportunity to develop its use in poultry and started using CRISPR-Cas9 to study bird flu virus in 2016. In 2019, my fellow collaborators and I began a United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI)-sponsored project to use the gene editing technology to develop chickens that are resistant to bird flu.

  1. What is the Bird flu-resistant chicken project all about?

Bird flu, also called avian influenza, is a disease well known across the world, and causes significant economic losses. When there is an outbreak, it can cause huge chicken mortality. It is also zoonotic and can be transferred from birds to humans, and often becomes fatal. There are, for instance, cases of H5N1 bird flu infections in people that have resulted in up to 50% fatality. When bird flu gets into people, it also has the potential to cause a pandemic much like the current coronavirus. In fact, one of the deadliest recorded pandemics in history – the 1918 flu pandemic – which killed more than 20 million people around the world originated from flu viruses in birds. It is therefore important to have the ingenuity of developing and breeding chicken that are resistant to avian influenza as a strategy for protecting ourselves and preventing the spread of the virus in huge populations of farmed animals which could serve as platforms for the emergence of the next pandemic virus.

  1. Explain the science behind this technology. How does one deploy genome editing tools to develop birds that are resistant to bird flu?

The first thing is to understand which particular gene is important for the bird flu virus. We then identify a variant of that gene, which is still functional in the cell and works normally, but which the virus cannot use. Usually, there are individual birds around the world that naturally possess such disease resistance gene variants. We then use gene editing technology to breed chickens that have that particular variant of gene. 

Our research group at the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with a research group at Imperial College London have already carried out the first part of the process over the past three years. We identified a gene that the bird flu virus needs to multiply when it infects chicken cells and identified a variant of that gene that the bird flu virus is unable to use. Right now, we are at the stage of using gene editing to breed chickens that have this particular gene variant which still functions normally and naturally but should be unusable by the bird flu virus to cause infection in chickens. 

To make gene edited chickens, we collect special types of cells from young chick embryos. We incubate the fertile chicken eggs for three days and take out a very small amount of blood from the chick embryos and then culture it to grow these special cell types. These special cells normally end up forming sperm and eggs in adult chickens. So, we grow them and perform gene editing on these special cells in the laboratory. We inject the gene-edited cells back into the blood of chick embryos in eggs. The eggs containing the injected embryos are then incubated until they hatch to get chicks that contain those gene edited cells. These hatched chicks will grow into adult chickens in which those injected gene edited cells end up forming sperm or eggs. When we cross the adult chickens together, their offspring will be gene edited.

  1. What is the goal of the project?

This project aims to find a global solution for preventing avian influenza in chickens because bird flu is not a disease restricted by any geographical boundaries; it is a global problem associated with poor poultry welfare, human health concerns and also economic losses. If we develop flu-resistant chickens, then they are the kind of chickens that should preferably be propagated everywhere to stop the spread of the virus.

  1. When do you expect farmers to access the chickens improved through your project?

There are several stages involved; developing the chicken, performing experimental validation to ensure that they are really resistant to bird flu, finding out if there are any side effects that affect welfare, health and productivity, and the regulation issues as different countries have different protocols when it comes to regulating gene edited products.

Furthermore, because this kind of gene editing requires to be propagated into animals on a largescale, one has to come up with sufficient funding and a large-scale breeding strategy. Nonetheless, I would say it may take a number of years before you see some of these animals in the market.

  1. What are the concerns, if any, that have arisen from the project or any that you foresee may arise in the future?

The major concern is the fact that bird flu virus mutates very rapidly. It mutates even faster than coronavirus. If we develop chickens that are not completely resistant, we may have a problem; the disease resistance may break down and become an even bigger problem. Before we even think of commercialization, we have to ensure that the gene edited chicken is completely or significantly resistant. We know of some chicken breeds in Africa that have some level of resistance to avian influenza, but the goal is to ensure these chickens are completely resistant because if they are not significantly resistant, the virus can mutate, escape and even result in a pandemic in humans.

  1. Do you think Africa has the capacity to regulate genome edited products?

I believe that the continent can develop the capacity to regulate these products. And I also believe that it would be easy to introduce the technology into many African labs. What we are doing is trying to simplify the technology so that trained scientists in any African lab can easily perform it. This means it is easy to understand and hence regulate. If it is too complex and complicated, then it becomes difficult to explain and be approved. I believe that there is potential capacity for genome editing regulations and even a greater potential capacity for utilizing genome editing in research. It is really a question of government interest, funding and support; factors which are important for African scientists driving these projects.

  1. Where do you see genome editing research in the next five years in the continent?

It depends on the amount of commitment from governments. A lot of research I know of is funded by Western governments. So, it really depends on the commitment from African governments. If you want to propagate a technology, it has to, in one way or the other, address your problems. At the moment, there are many challenges affecting the production of livestock and crops on the continent some of which can be potentially investigated or addressed using genome editing. It is a new technology and so its success largely depends on government interest and commitment. Its outlook will therefore vary from country to country based on their government’s input, support and commitment.

Dr. Alewo Idoko-Akoh is a Research Fellow in the McGrew Group, Division of Functional Genetics and Development of the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom.