Interview Dr Lucina Galina (PIC): Searching for a solution to PRRS via genetics

08-12-2023 | |
Dr Lucina Galina Pantoja is technical project director at PIC. She coordinates activities related to the PRRSv-resistant pig project and other innovations. Prior to joining PIC she also worked for Zoetis. She obtained a doctor’s degree in Veterinary Medicine in 1989 from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico and she is a doctor in Philosophy and Swine Medicine from the University of Minnesota, USA in 1993. Photo: PIC

Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) virus has been a troublesome pathogen for swine producers around the world for 3 decades. There are various strategies, from better biosecurity to vaccination, but the search continues for a solution to control the virus once and for all. A route through genetics might provide that solution, explains Dr Lucina Galina Pantoja, technical project director at pig breeder PIC in the United States.

Scientist and veterinarian Dr Lucina Galina Pantoja has spent most of her professional career finding ways to limit the damage of swine respiratory diseases, including the PRRS virus in swine production. In that mission she is not alone. Nevertheless, 30 years of science has not led to a solution against the virus. Dr Galina says: “That is bizarre. Porcine circovirus 2 (PCV2) entered the pig industry many years later. And there has been a decent vaccine against that virus for years.”

These days she works for pig breeder PIC. She leads a project to breed genetically modified pigs that are resistant to PRRS virus. That innovation could constitute the breakthrough to get rid of PRRS.

Can PIC guarantee that pigs without the fifth domain of the CD163 perform and behave like before?

“Based on internal research, pigs lacking the CD163 domain 5 (the PRRSv receptor) behave like conventional pigs based on production, reproduction and meat quality. Key performance indicators were compared between pigs carrying 2 versions of the CD163 gene lacking domain 5 (PRRS resistance is a recessive trait, so pigs need to be homozygous for the desirable gene) versus controls carrying one gene or none.

“We compared 20 production indicators, including birth weight, weight at 140 days, carcass weight, mortalities and slaughter health checks. In addition, we compared reproductive performance indicators. These included total pigs born, total born alive, total born dead, etc. Furthermore, we compared over 97 meat quality and composition analysis traits. The results indicated no statistically significant differences between the 2 groups. We have applied for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, which will have the final say on safety and efficacy in the United States.”

The CD163 protein has a proven track record of being safe for consumption in food derived from animals

Are there no risks to human health by consuming pork of edited pigs?

“The FDA is currently evaluating the safety of PIC’s PRRS-resistant pig. As part of that process, PIC has submitted edible tissue compositional studies for FDA review. The CD163 protein has a proven track record of being safe for consumption in food derived from animals. In animals that inherited the genomic alteration, the CD163 protein is a shorter version of the unedited protein. The only difference is a single amino acid change. It is important to note that the pork is not from pigs directly edited but rather the offspring of edited pigs. Animals edited were multiple generations in the past. Gene editing will have broad applications. At a high level, 3,500+ gene therapies are being developed for human medicine, half for cancer.”

Will this intervention work even for future types of PRRSv that arise after mutations or recombinants?

“Like other RNA viruses, PRRSv constantly changes. Therefore, we must be vigilant and monitor resistance over time. There are currently 2 types of PRRSv, types 1 and 2. New classifications further divide the virus into different lineages (L1–L9) and sub-lineages. We tested resistance by exposing pigs to types 1 and 2 and multiple lineages. Our studies to date have included representative isolates of 90%+ of the most dominant and contemporary lineages and sub-lineages diagnosed in the United States. In pigs carrying 2 versions of the resistant gene (homozygous resistant), we could not detect PRRSv genomic material (using the PCR test) or an immune response against the virus (using the ELISA antibody test) up to 21 days post-infection.

“The oldest PRRSv isolate tested in our pig infection studies was recovered from pigs in 1997. The most recent isolates were in 2022. We found similar results testing monocytic cells in laboratory conditions. What we know is that resistance has been effective against isolates that we have tested, which emerged and evolved for 25 years.”

When do you expect the FDA’s permission to sell PRRS-resistant pigs in the USA?

“PIC expects to hear a decision from the FDA in the first half of 2024. PIC also seeks regulatory approvals and government determinations in several other countries. It is important to realise that even with FDA approval, the launch and commercialisation of the PRRS-resistant pigs will depend upon multiple factors, including approval in key export markets, etc.”

In the Netherlands, there are around 750,000 sows in production. How long does it take to transfer this herd from a conventional one into a PRRS-resistant sow herd?

“It will take multiple years to populate a given herd with PRRS-resistant pigs. Theoretically, if you were going to start populating a farm today, using only semen from sires that are homozygous resistant and with industry-standard replacement rates, you would produce 25% resistant pigs in the herd by the end of the third year. By the end of the seventh year you would produce 70% resistant pigs. This timeline could be expedited by not only using semen from resistant boars but also using females carrying at least 1 version of the favourable gene, inseminating females with known genotypes, increasing the sow replacement rate, etc.”

Has PIC already discussed this project with the authorities of the European Union?

“The European regulations on gene editing in plants and animals are rapidly evolving. The UK passed the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act for plants and animals in March 2023, which allows the use of gene editing technologies. The same year, the European Commission (EC) recognised the potential of new genomic techniques (NGTs), such as gene editing, to improve plant growth and contribute to sustainable food systems. Climate challenges and reduced yields due to crop failures have made it clear that global food systems are fragile and need more resilience.

“The current GMO legislation is unsuitable for NGTs. The EC has proposed policy actions to exclude gene-edited crops from the GMO legislation and create separate pathways for NGT plants to enter the market. In a recent development, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) will probably provide scientific opinion on animal NGTs in 2025. This is a key step in aligning plant and animal regulations. Breeding companies, including PIC, are actively involved in the continued evolution of the new European regulations. While the regulatory landscape is changing in Europe, PIC is seeking regulatory approvals and determinations in multiple other countries. Colombia for example, recently indicated gene-edited pigs are regular pigs, not genetically modified organisms.”

It is important to note that the technology can benefit multiple stakeholders in the food chain

Is gene editing a potential solution against other viruses, like influenza?

“With a growing demand for animal protein, gene editing of farm animals could be a solution to increase health and productivity. Exploring new technologies is important for controlling infectious diseases, especially when current control options have limited success. Scientific literature contains several examples of gene edits. These include hornless cattle (termed “polled”), slick hair coat cattle that are more tolerant to heat, red sea bream, and tiger puffer fish that grow bigger for the Japanese market, chicken more resistant to influenza, etc.

“The technology can benefit multiple stakeholders in the food chain. For example, the PRRS-resistant pig can provide benefits to the pig (improved welfare), producers (increased productivity), packing and processors (resilient supply chain, support of antibiotic policies), food services, retail and consumers (lower environmental impact). In humans, the advantages are equally important. According to the World Health Organization, gene editing shows tremendous potential to help treat and prevent human diseases, including HIV, sickle-cell disease and a variety of cancers.

“So, it will take time to explore gene editing as a tool to contain viruses and improve pig health, but we believe gene editing will be an important tool going forward.”

van Dooren
Kees van Dooren Reporter Boerderij
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