Here's the article that ran in the Hartford Courant yesterday.
A PET PROJECT AT UCONN
GENE RESEARCHERS MAY TRY TO PRODUCE AN ALLERGEN-FREE CAT
First Amy the cloned cow, now Morris the allergen-free cat?
Scientists using gene technology at the University of Connecticut hope to develop the world's first non-allergenic cat, something that could be the purr-fect solution to end the watery eyes, runny nose and other symptoms of feline allergy in humans.
Even in the gee-whiz world of cloning and gene manipulation, that's nothing to sneeze at because an estimated 27 million Americans are allergic to cats.
A fledgling New York biotechnology company, Transgenic Pets LLC, thinks UConn can produce just the animal to make allergy shots and other medications a thing of the past.
``We think this is a responsible way to address the problem of human allergies,'' said Jackie Avner, who co-founded the company with her husband, Dr. David Avner, a former allergy researcher and now a resident in emergency medicine.
``Currently people with cat allergies are subjected to certain risks from pharmaceutical and immunological treatments, and by removing the cat allergen at its source, people will be able to enjoy the companionship of a pet without worrying about those potential side effects,'' she said.
She and her husband are trying to raise $2 million in venture capital to pay for the research. The non-allergenic cats would not have a particular gene -- Fel d 1 -- which is responsible for producing a protein that triggers an allergic response in some people.
``I was interested in the idea, because our whole family has an allergy to cats,'' said University of Connecticut scientist Xiangzhong ``Jerry'' Yang, who in 1999 made headlines when he cloned a calf, Amy, using cells from an adult cow's ear.
But hold onto those allergy pills -- at least for the time being.
The fledgling company doesn't expect to have a product until 2003. The technology to produce the cats is still being developed, and may hit roadblocks. An estimated price for one of these cats ranges from $750 to $1,000 -- about what some purebreds cost.
Yang said no one has cloned a cat yet, and scientists don't know how the gene's removal would affect a cat's health. Researchers don't think it will have an adverse impact because the protein does not serve any vital functions that they can see.
``Will knocking out the gene hurt the animal? We hope not,'' Yang said.
As for those who think people should not play God with the genetic makeup of cats, Audrey C. Kriston, president of the American Association of Cat Enthusiasts Inc., points out, ``Cat people have played God with cats since the beginning.''
``What they're doing is no different from what's been done for generations,'' she said. ``They're just doing it in a more scientific way. ... I wish them luck, but I don't think it's going to work.''
Dr. Jason Lee, an allergist with the Connecticut Asthma and Allergy Center in West Hartford, said there are other proteins that cause allergies, such as albumin, but removing the Fel d 1 gene could remove a lot of the symptoms in allergic people.
``I hope it works, because we have a lot of cat allergy people and we really don't have a good treatment,'' he said. Some people are exposed to so much cat dander that allergy therapies don't do them much good, he said.
Which brings up another point: The company won't be making existing cats allergy free, so people with allergies won't see any relief unless they get rid of their existing cats.
That troubles animal advocates such as the Connecticut Humane Society, which feels the world already is overpopulated with unwanted cats.
Spokeswoman Jody Angell said the society didn't think it was a good idea for some company to breed more cats, even if they have special characteristics.
Jackie Avner said the cat owners she knows would not give up their pets because they love them. But new pet shoppers might consider an allergy-free cat.
All of the company's cats would be sterilized to protect the company's franchise and to prevent the cats from contributing to the overpopulation problem, she said.
Transgenic will start with domestic shorthairs, but may expand to specific breeds if demand warrants. Dogs have several proteins that cause allergic reactions, so Jackie Avner said the company would be concentrating on cats.
Of course, an allergen-free cat would also mean that some people can no longer hide from the real reason they don't have a cat: They simply don't like them.