“The heart wants what it can’t have” sums up society’s desire for a hypoallergenic kitty. Sure, many cat breeds like the hairless Sphynx or Balinese are recommended for the 10 percent of people allergic to household pets. But a naturally hypoallergenic cat is the stuff of myth so far.
There are more recent hopes we might be able to create such a cat out of cutting-edge genetic engineering. Researchers at a Virginia-based biotech company InBio may have just gotten us there with a crucial new step forward. In a new study published in The CRISPR Journal, they used the gene-editing tool CRISPR to prevent cat cells from producing the allergy-causing Fel d 1 protein—found in feline saliva, skin, and fur—without negative side effects. The results might eventually help lead us to getting a hypoallergenic cat all through the use of a simple injection that targets the Fel d 1 gene.
Fel d 1 is responsible for 95 percent of all cat allergy cases. As The Atlantic reported last November, strategies to curb this protein have included a specially-designed kibble, and a cat vaccine powered by a cucumber-infecting virus. Some are pursuing gene therapy using CRISPR, but that hasn’t yet been successful. (One company’s claims a decade ago that it created genetically altered hypoallergenic cats came under considerable scrutiny by multiple outlets.)
We’re still not yet sure what exactly is the purpose of Fel d 1. But an analysis of the Fel d 1 gene in domestic cats and in several big or wild cat species suggested that the gene was not essential to a cat’s survival, giving the InBio researchers confidence they could move forward with the actual gene-editing experiments. They used CRISPR to erase either the CH1 or CH2 gene of Fel d 1 (each encodes a protein that both come together to make the allergen) from the genomes of cat cells grown in the lab, disrupting Fel d 1 production without affecting the production and function of other proteins. For future experiments, the researchers plan to delete both the CH1 and CH2 genes to confirm this prevents the Fel d 1 protein entirely.
While this is a viable first step toward creating a truly hypoallergenic cat, the researchers are more interested in creating a treatment that removes Fel d 1 from an existing cat’s system than making a gene-edited cat from scratch.
“From a consumer/patient perspective, [creating hypoallergenic] cats would be largely cost-prohibitive,” Nicole Brackett, a research scientist at InBio who led the study, said to Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. “We also think it would be more practical from a commercial standpoint, as well as more ethical, to develop a treatment that is administered to existing cats rather than breeding and selling allergen-free cats.”
Brackett and her team envision something on par with a shot easily administered at the vet that would temporarily shut down the Fel d 1 protein. How exactly they plan to formulate this shot remains to be seen, and more testing on actual cats and not cat cells is underway. But if holding a cat has your throat in a chokehold—from allergies and not cuteness overload—this potential treatment might be worth keeping an eye out for, alongside your future furry best friend.