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[BEIJING] Scientists say they have created genetically modified rice that can protect poultry against bird flu.

The rice is modified using a gene from the Chinese plant Yuzhu, which is used in traditional medicine.

The scientists, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, have already shown that a protein found in Yuzhu is a strong inhibitor of the bird flu virus H5N1, which has killed 248 people since 2003, according to the WHO.

Last month (16 January) Samuel Sun Sai-ming, a plant scientist and leader of the team, announced that his group had successfully introduced the gene into the rice — and that the modified rice also inhibits H5N1.

To test the effect further, they plan to compare the antiviral powers of the GM rice that has produced the protein with protein isolated directly from Yuzhu.

After that, the next step is to conduct animal testing to see whether the protein can provide resistance to H5N1 infection.

Ultimately they hope that birds that are fed the rice could be protected from the virus without the need for vaccination. 

"If the level of the introduced anti-H5N1 Yuzhu protein present in the transgenic rice is high enough, the antiviral effects of the 'modified rice' may be expected to be significant," Sun told SciDev.Net.

But the research faces several obstacles, one of which is safety. The toxicity of both the bird flu virus and the newly created rice need to be considered, he said.

"We do not have safety data for this genetically modified rice," says Paul Chan, a microbiologist and member of the team.

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