U.K.-based Genus teams with U.S. scientists for resilient pigs

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Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) is a deadly virus that causes an estimated $550 million in damage to swine producers each year. Now U.K.-based Genus says it has used gene editing to create pigs that are resistant to the virus, and that it will continue to develop the technology under an exclusive license with the University of Missouri.

Genus' gene editing technique resulted in pigs that lack the specific protein that causes PRRS to spread, according to a press release from the company. In early studies, the gene-altered pigs did not get sick when exposed to the virus.

The company estimates it will take at least 5 years to get to the stage where the PRRS-resistant pigs can be made available to farmers. "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," said Jonathan Lightner, chief scientific officer and head of R&D at Genus, in a press release.

Genus described the technology it used to create the pigs in a recent issue of Nature Biotechnology. Researchers from the University of Missouri's Division of Animal Science and Kansas State University's Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology also contributed to the advance.

Editing the genes of animals to improve their health is controversial but gaining in popularity. The Roslin Institute in the U.K. has used the technique to make pigs resistant to another devastating disease called African swine fever. And last spring, a startup called Recombinetics produced dairy calves that were born without horns and thus were able to dodge a painful but common practice known as dehorning.

There is no cure for PRRS, which causes reproductive problems, growth issues and premature death. Several companies market vaccines against the disease, including Merck ($MRK) and Boehringer Ingelheim's Vetmedica, but the disease continues to cause major losses for the swine industry.

- here's the Genus press release
- access the Nature Biotechnology paper here