It is a discovery that spans decades and careers: A team of researchers at Kansas State University, the University of Missouri and global agricultural biotechnology company Genus plc has developed pigs that are resistant to the most devastating disease in the swine industry.
The disease – caused by the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, or PRRS, virus – has cost the U.S. pork industry more than $10 billion since it first appeared in the late 1980s. The discovery of PRRS-resistant pigs could significantly improve animal well-being and save hundreds of millions of dollars each year, said Raymond “Bob” Rowland, professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, and one of the researchers involved in the discovery.
“In the decades that we have had the PRRS virus, we have looked at vaccines, diagnostics and other strategies and we have never been able to eliminate the disease,” Rowland said. “This is the first time that we have established the potential to eliminate this devastating disease.”
The collaborative research appears in Nature Biotechnology in the article, “Gene-edited pigs are protected from porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus.”
Rowland has been studying the PRRS virus for more than 20 years and is one of the world’s leading experts on the virus. For the latest research, he partnered with several University of Missouri researchers in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, including Randall Prather, professor; Kristin Whitworth, research specialist; and Kevin Wells, associate professor.
Prather’s laboratory developed the pigs and Rowland’s laboratory tested for the PRRS virus infection at Kansas State University’s Large Animal Research Center. Numerous undergraduate and graduate students also were involved in the project.
“It is a unique way of tackling viral disease,” Rowland said. “It is truly a game-changer.”
The resistant pigs lack the CD 163 protein and showed no signs or evidence of being infected with the PRRS virus. The pigs will need to undergo further testing and evaluation before they become available.
The scientists may be able to apply the same concepts to other diseases, Rowland said. With Kansas State University’s Biosecurity Research Institute and the arrival of the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, Rowland sees numerous opportunities to continue research that benefits animal well-being, supports industry and helps meet the global demand for animal protein.
“At the very least, the development of PRRS-resistant pigs is a new tool for improving pig well-being and reducing economic losses,” Rowland said. “At the most, it could be the beginning of a revolution that will eradicate many of the most important livestock diseases that affect global animal and human health communities.”
Other Kansas State University researchers involved in the project include Catherine Ewen, former research assistant professor; Benjamin Trible, Rowland’s laboratory manager; Maureen Kerrigan, Rowland’s laboratory research manager; and Ada Cino-Ozuna, clinical assistant professor and a graduate student working with Rowland. All the researchers are involved with the diagnostic medicine and pathobiology department.
The research has been supported by Genus plc, a global agricultural biotechnology company, and Food for the 21st Century at the University of Missouri. Genus will continue to develop this technology and expects it will be at least five years until PRRS-resistant animals are available to farmers.
“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. “There are several critical challenges ahead as we develop and commercialize this technology; however, the promise is clear, and Genus is committed to developing its potential. Genus is dedicated to the responsible exploration of new innovations that benefit the well-being of animals, farmers and ultimately consumers.”