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Researchers, corporation developing
disease-resistant poultry
February 8, 1999

Two professors of molecular and cell biology are linking diet and health directly - at least for chickens.

The two, Professor Philip I. Marcus and Associate Professor Margaret J. Sekellick, have developed a gene sequence which may allow chickens to eat corn laced with chicken interferon that could make them resistant to viral diseases such as avian influenza.

The sequence has been licensed by the University to DeKalb Genetics Corp., a member of the Monsanto Global Seed Group. The company will work to introduce the gene into corn plants. The corn will then be turned, literally, into chicken feed.

The gene isolated by Marcus and Sekellick can be used to continuously produce chicken interferon, Sekellick says. That gene can then be manipulated or introduced into a plant.

After DeKalb introduces the gene into corn plants, a process which could take a year, material from the plants will be given back to UConn to test.

"We will be looking for the best means of delivering the interferon to chickens," Sekellick says.

Although animal and human genes have been introduced into plants already in other experiments, Sekellick says the scientists involved in the project will be working out questions about whether interferon can be effectively delivered orally and issues relating to dosage and timing of using the corn as feed.

"We are optimistic that there will be some significant advances in the poultry industry as a result of this technology."

Stewart Rosenberg
President, Bio-Investigations

The scientists believe corn with sufficient levels of interferon could serve as an alternative or adjunct to vaccines to combat viral infections, including the avian flu, in poultry. Infections are often costly to both farmers and consumers.

Eating a diet of interferon corn is expected to be more effective than using vaccines. Unlike vaccines, which work to prevent a virus from entering a cell, interferons can protect cells from the lethal action of a broad spectrum of viruses, even after the viruses have entered a cell.

The gene sequence has been licensed by the University through Bio-Investigations, a venture capital firm based in Madison that is focused on the fields of human, veterinary and agricultural health care and maintains relationships with universities and corporations worldwide.

"We are delighted that our contract with Bio-Investigations has led to a significant new relationship with DeKalb," says Robert Smith, vice provost for research and graduate education. "UConn's and DeKalb's mutual interests in agricultural biotechnology will assist research and technology transfer efforts at the University - efforts that are vital to Connecticut and our nation."

Stewart Rosenberg, president of Bio-Investigations says both Marcus and Sekellick have outstanding reputations in interferon research. "When one combines their scientific expertise and capabilities as the technology's inventors with the proprietary position held by the University on the discovery, and then adds the worldwide dealership position in agricultural biotechnology of DeKalb and the Monsanto Global Seed Group, we are optimistic that there will be some significant advances in the poultry industry as a result of this technology," he says.

Karen Grava