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Scientists, vets and farmers work to beat pig disease

A virus that can cause economic devastation for pig farmers, welfare issues for animals and drive up the price of pork and bacon for consumers is being tackled by scientists, vets and the farming industry working together.

Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) first emerged around 20 years ago and now costs the US pig industry alone over $600M a year. A recent outbreak in China killed over 400,000 animals and led to an 85% increase in pork prices. Now a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funded workshop, led by the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, is bringing together scientists and stakeholders to review and promote an interdisciplinary and transnational approach to beating the disease.

PRRS particularly affects microphages in an infected pig's lungs. These cells are the immune system's frontline defence against pathogens. By suppressing the immune system PRRS allows persistent infections to become established, leading to respiratory problems, abortion in pregnant sows and the death of piglets. The virus that causes the disease has the ability to rapidly evolve making the development of vaccines and treatments difficult.

A project funded under a BBSRC initiative has made important progress in recent years in understanding the genetic basis of different pig breeds susceptibility to the PRRS virus. The researchers from the Roslin Institute, University of Cambridge, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency have found that the macrophages of landrace pigs have a marked reduced response to the virus than other breeds. If the genetic basis of this can be determined it may open up the possibility of breeding in improved immunity to the virus.

The scientists will be discussing their findings with colleagues and formulating future strategies at the workshop, which is also supported by the Genesis Faraday Partnership and the Epizone and EADGENE EC networks.

PRRS is a hugely damaging disease - for the animals, the farming industry and consumers. The UK pig industry is already suffering from high feed costs and other overheads. Our research is showing us a way to remove the risk of a damaging disease from the list of worries. The workshop will give us the opportunity to bring together scientists, vets and industry representatives to share our ideas and set up collaborations for the future.

Dr Tahar Ait-AliPRRS researcher at the Roslin Institute