By Amy Tsao Would-be cat lovers with severe allergies to felines may one day get to indulge their passion if researchers have their way. Two upstart companies -- Transgenic Pets and Allerca -- are attempting to apply to cats the same basic methods of genetic manipulation that make farm animals and crops heartier. They want to make cats produce less of the protein that sets off allergies in some people. No hypoallergenic kittens exist to date, and the science, though theoretically possible, has plenty of practical challenges.
Now add to those problems a catfight between the two outfits. On Dec. 14, Transgenic Pets, based in Denver, filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles-based Allerca, alleging that the latter's chairman and CEO, Simon Brodie, violated nondisclosure agreements when his company began to advertise its plan to breed and sell hypoallergenic cats last fall. On Jan. 31, a federal district court judge in Colorado issued a 10-day restraining order against Allerca that orders the business to pull down its Web site, stop contact with investors, and cease collection of deposits from potential customers.
BIG HOPES. Transgenic Pets was founded in 1999. Its founder, Dr. David Avner, says he met with Brodie, a potential investor in the company, in early 2004. Brodie ended up walking away from any deal in the fall but also agreed that he would honor confidentiality agreements he signed, Avner says. "Our position is that he breached our noncompete agreement and is using our material to market his own company," says Avner.
Brodie, who founded Allerca last year, declined to comment on the suit, but the Allerca Web site was still live on Feb. 3. "This isn't going to affect Allerca in the long term," Brodie says, adding that the hypoallergenic cat is just one project he plans to pursue.
Those plans are expansive. Allerca issued a press release on Jan. 15, announcing that it will charge $5,000 for its future cats, instead of the $3,500 originally planned. "Tens of thousands" of people have sent refundable deposits, Brodie says, since he started marketing a few months ago. Sales could top $1 billion by the end of 2007, he estimates.
SILENCING A GENE. A hypoallergenic cat has massive market potential. Americans own 77.7 million cats, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn. In total, pet owners spend about $34 billion on food, toys, and services for their animals each year. Such stats could be significantly larger if people with pet allergies were given the option of hypoallergenic breeds.
"It boggles my mind," says Nils Lonberg, senior vice-president for scientific affairs at Medarex (MEDX), a biotech concern known for making genetically altered mice. "I see the numbers for pets, and they rival the pharmaceutical industry," says Lonberg. Even if a tiny fraction of people with cat allergies buy a feline, that would be enough to sustain a business. "Once they can make one, the companies should be able to make as many cats as they want," Lonberg says.
The market will still take years to develop. The two enterprises are trying, with slightly different approaches, to suppress the production of a protein called Fel d1, the main cause of cat allergies. Brodie says researchers he has hired are currently testing the mechanism that silences the gene making Fel d1 in cat cells. He says Allerca will start implanting cat embryos by the fall. If all goes according to plan, kittens could be available by the end of this year or early in 2006. Brodie, who says he fared well as an information-technology consultant during the heyday of the dot-com economy, funds Allerca himself.
NO REAL DATA. Transgenic Pets is further behind. Avner was able to raise some money in the business' early days, but the Internet bust slowed him considerably. The company has been dormant since 2001, as Avner hasn't been able to raise new funding. He says he's currently talking to potential backers, including venture capitalists and individual investors.
Even without the recent litigation, both outfits have plenty of hurdles to making the cats a reality. Gregory Hannon, a professor at New York's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and an Allerca adviser, says the idea of silencing the gene that makes the Fel d1 protein is feasible. Scientists have already successfully manipulated genes in organisms from sheep to fungi to cows. "Chances are pretty good it will work in cats," says Hannon.
However, one issue is whether decreasing the amount of Fel d1 expressed by a cat will solve the allergy problem, says Hannon. "I don't think there's any real data on that." Fel d1 is the key allergen when it comes to cats, but other similar ones in the Fel family also play a part in allergic reactions. "The hope is that [by] getting rid of Fel d1, most people will have their allergies alleviated," notes Hannon. Even if Fel d1 isn't completely eliminated, a smaller quantity may minimize the reactions.
GENETIC CAT'S CRADLE? Allergists are skeptical that addressing Fel d1 will be sufficient, especially for those who are severely allergic. "There are numerous proteins we react to when we're allergic," says Dr. Nayla Z. Mumneh of the Allergy Treatment Center of New Jersey in Cedar Grove. Different breeds, based on their color, coat length, and hair type, could potentially secrete more of the allergen than others.
"A small number of individuals will benefit from a non-Fel-d1-producing cat," says Mumneh. "I would never recommend people with severe asthma to have any cat." Brodie says he plans to screen prospective buyers for their level of Fel d1 sensitivity to determine whether they would have bad reaction to one of Allerca's engineered cats.
Another possible obstacle is the gene could be responsible for other functions besides producing Fel d1. "We don't know what other things we'll find out," says Alex Livingston, professor of pharmacology and physiology at Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. "Blocking the gene may interfere with other processes." Livingston notes that there have been many cases in which scientists manipulated a gene responsible for one trait, only to find it had an impact on other important functions.
A fluffy that doesn't set off sneezes and sniffles could one day be a reality. But for now, it's still kitten dreams. Tsao is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York