Jun 17, 2013

    China study makes bird-flu breakthrough

    GENETIC studies by Chinese scientists may have set a new direction for the prevention and treatment of avian flu.

    Dr Li Ning, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a professor at China Agricultural University, together with his colleagues, published the sequence for the duck genome in the journal Nature Genetics last Monday.

    The work identifies potential genetic factors influencing how ducks respond to avian influenza.

    "Ducks are like the natural reservoir of avian-flu viruses," Dr Li said, explaining that ducks could be affected by more strains of bird flu than any other animal.

    Avian influenza can affect many animals, even pandas, but most animals are vulnerable only to several strains.

    However, ducks can harbour 14 out of the 16 known hemagglutinin and all nine neuraminidase subtypes, Dr Li said.

    What has drawn scientists' interest is that despite their vulnerability to bird flu, ducks have strong immune systems that protect them from being killed by the flu.

    After sequencing the whole genome of a 10-week-old female Beijing duck, the team found that the duck has fewer immune-related genes than mammals. Ducks also have a specific gene that responds to avian influenza.

    "That means ducks survive avian influenza not because they have more immune genes, but because they have special genes that resist the virus," Dr Li said.

    "Besides breeding, the research will also offer possibilities of new methods to cure bird flu," he said.