MU Researchers Study Cat Genomes to Treat Human Allergies

Researchers at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine are focusing in on determining whether genetic causes of various diseases found in cats can lead to further research that will help in the treatment of human allergies. The project, titled “The 99 Lives Cat Genome Sequencing Initiative” began 5 years ago and has been adding to a database of growing knowledge gathered from veterinarians and the average cat owner who is seeking to better understand their cat’s diseases.

As it turns out, it has been discovered that cats and humans have a number of diseases in common, including diabetes, asthma, obesity, and certain types of allergies. One such example is polycystic kidney disease, an ailment that is known to occur in cats frequently but is more prevalent in humans than all the known occurrences of sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy combined. Due to the genetic similarities of cats and humans, a treatment for one of these diseases found in cats could open the door for a similar treatment being tested on humans.

What is being acknowledged is that larger animals such as cats are preferred for experimentation and research as their genomes are closer to humans than the traditional mice and rat species. This is not limited to cats, but larger animals in general. The reason is that there are some diseases that are very difficult to see in smaller animals.

One of the more time consuming approaches used in the research is choosing deep sequencing over skim sequencing. The terms describe the difference, with deep sequencing requiring defining the cat’s genome over and over to provide a more accurate picture of the disease and its connection.

This is not simply a program that only interests scientists and researchers, but one that has the support of the general public. A crowdfunding portal, Mizzou Give Direct, was created to financially support the project. The goal was $21,000 and at the end of last month there were donations exceeding 5 times the goal. What is better news is that costs for research have dropped significantly since the inception of the project. The sequencing of an entire genome cost $7,000 in 2013; now that amount is only $3,000.

Support for the program has expanded to other countries, including Australia, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and Sweden. This means more data and a larger team of researchers pursuing answers that have the potential to discover cures for some of the less publicized diseases that affect millions of people.

There is no doubt that the research has the potential to bring a cure to many, if not the vast majority of allergies that currently afflict humans. But what is also clear is that to achieve the desired result both cats and humans will have to get their paws dirty and become “lab rats” to test the prevailing theory. For the most part, mice and rats have been used to test potential medical breakthroughs without much squeaking from the public. Now we are moving up the evolutionary ladder, beginning to make the case that larger animals are necessary to move forward in the hope of finding potential cures of a number of diseases.

The public seems to be in support of this move to a degree, but it is not clear other than the dollar amounts donated how large the actual number of people are in support of the project or even aware of its existence. The promise of genetic cures for diseases is sold to us on a regular basis. But from an objective viewpoint the medical community’s answer to last season’s influenza outbreak resulted in a vaccination that was less than 50 percent in some cases and resulted in the death of hundreds of people, including almost 100 children.

This is not a denial of science but an exercise in caution. Allergies, like the flu, are usually seasonal in nature. While allergies only cause a considerable amount of discomfort to people, will the solution be permanent? Carrying over the other more serious diseases such as sickle cell, will the proffered solution actually be a permanent cure or will it give a false hope to its victims, only making their suffering greater.

Everyone would be glad to see these efforts bring permanent solutions to a number of human diseases. But the research pool is rather small – only 50 scientists are currently active and involved in the research – and only 40 research facilities around the globe are engaging in the effort. Research hope is not the same as real hope, and we should walk carefully to avoid selling promises that we may not be capable of keeping.

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