Pet owners represent a whopping 70 percent of U.S. households, with dogs and cats reigning supreme as the most popular pets. But while cat owners make up one in four U.S. households, cat allergies impact as much as 15 percent of the global population. Given the popularity of cats – and the ubiquity of cat allergies – it’s no surprise that scientists have been exploring ways to offer relief to pet lovers with allergy symptoms. Now, researchers may be able to effectively erase the allergy-causing protein from the feline genome, according to a new study in The CRISPR Journal. It might sound far-fetched, but fully hypoallergenic cats could be closer than we think.
What Causes Cat Allergies?
To understand the possibilities associated with hypoallergenic cats, we first have to explore what causes cat allergies. Per a 2019 study published in healthcare journal EMJ, most cat allergies are caused by a protein called Fel d 1. Contrary to popular belief, Fel d 1 is not produced by cat dander. Instead, Fel d 1 is secreted through cat saliva, which spreads through the animals’ fur as they groom themselves and enters the home when cats shed their fur. Fel d 1 is at the heart of a new study published in The CRISPR Journal. In this study, the researchers sought to answer a critical question: “Could gene-editing technology eliminate the Fel d 1 protein in cat cells?”
The Genetic Implications of Hypoallergenic Cats
The researchers began by analyzing the DNA of 50 domestic cats to identify the source of the Fel d 1 protein. Eventually, they discovered regions on two genes – known as CH1 and CH2 – that code for Fel d 1. The researchers also assessed the genomes of eight different species of wild cats. To their surprise, the two coding regions varied widely between the species, suggesting that Fel 1 d is likely not an essential part of a cat’s core biology. With that in mind, the researchers set out to determine if the protein could be erased without harming the animals. To do so, the team used CRISPR gene-editing technology to eliminate the Fel 1 d coding regions in cat cells. The results were just as the researchers hoped. Removing the Fel 1 d coding regions caused no unwanted genetic changes in the cells, proving that Fel 1 d is likely nonessential and, thus, a good candidate for widespread gene editing.
The Future of Hypoallergenic Cats
So, researchers have concluded that Fel 1 d can be safely removed from the cat population – but what does that mean for cat lovers with allergies? “Taken together, our data indicate that Fel d 1 is both a rational and viable candidate for gene deletion, which may profoundly benefit cat allergy sufferers by removing the major allergen at the source,” the team wrote in the study abstract. Unfortunately, this kind of gene-editing approach could be far off, considering the resources and time needed to edit the genes of the global cat population. For now, allergy sufferers may need to rely on approaches that partially eliminate Fel d 1, like specialty cat foods and vaccines. Fortunately, as the researchers write in the study, “future studies will aim to develop a means for deleting the Fel d 1 genes in adult cats and effectively rendering the cats hypoallergenic.”
While editing the genes of the global cat population may be an unrealistic approach, the research into the Fel d 1 protein means scientists are one step closer to providing long-term relief for individuals with cat allergies.
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