Gene editing offers future options to address swine diseases

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Whether the focus is human or animal medicine, gene editing has created a buzz today about its potential for addressing numerous health issues.

Within pork production, much of the anticipation centers on the technology’s prospect of advancing disease resistance in pigs, with porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) leading the list.

“We’re really focusing on disease resistance and the challenges that we have,” Thomas Titus, a pork producer from Elkhart, Illinois, told Pig Health Today. “Nearly every farm is affected by PRRS in one way or another. Either you have it and you’re trying to deal with it or you’re trying to keep it out.”

That spurred his interest in learning more about gene-editing technologies and the future implications for his family’s TriPork Farm.

“You begin to look at some of the challenges that we have with the PRRS virus and think about ‘what if we didn’t have to worry about that?’” he relayed.

Gene editing is not GMO

Having participated in gene-editing conferences and panels, Titus explained that gene editing utilizes the technology known as CRISPR/Cas9, which can be used to edit genes within organisms.

CRISPR is an abbreviation of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, and it provides efficient and reliable ways to make precise, targeted changes to the genome.

“It’s not like we’re inserting a gene from a different species,” he emphasized. Whether right or wrong, that’s how much of the general public perceives genetically modified organism (GMO) technology.

“It [gene editing] is doing things that can be performed in natural, selective breeding,” he added. “But by using CRISPR technology, you speed up that process, where you can make that change almost immediately within that genome.”

Titus offered the example of developing PRRS-resistant pigs, a goal that led scientists at Kansas State University and the University of Missouri to pool their resources. They’ve utilized CRISPR technology to identify a very specific sequence in the gene, after which they can alter it or delete it.

Convincing the public

Although farmers and veterinarians look to science for solutions, agriculture’s past experience with GMOs and the general public’s perception of the technology offer a stark lesson. The question is whether the public will view gene editing differently.

The gateway to the public’s acceptance could ultimately hinge on gene editing’s implications for human health, Titus said. For example, the technology could possibly be used to address such chronic health issues as diabetes, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

“They will have more skin in the game. It [gene editing] could help individuals in their family or themselves, perhaps,” Titus noted. “It becomes an easier conversation; it kind of paves the way to utilizing it within animal and plant agriculture.”

He offered three key messages to share when speaking with consumers:

  1. Emphasize animal health and well-being; that the pork industry is focused on using gene editing to address diseases and health versus making cosmetic changes to the animal.
  2. Talk about how the genetic change can occur through natural, selective breeding, but that it’s simply a quicker pathway.
  3. Share confidence in the regulatory process that will ensure the technology provides a safe and wholesome outcome.

Of course, any technology can be abused or misused, and he acknowledges that’s a concern. “I completely understand those concerns,” Titus said. “I’m really focused on the implication it has for fighting disease and helping fight hunger.”

Titus added that he believes it would be irresponsible not to continue to research gene editing in order to better understand the technology and its application for pork production.

“As a pig farmer, [I’m] always looking for ways to do our job better,” he added.  “It [gene editing] is a great opportunity and a very exciting time in science.”

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