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Hypoallergenic Cats: Solution for Cat Allergy?

$3,500 Cat Might Still Cause Cat Allergy, Experts Say
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WebMD Health News

Oct. 28, 2004 -- For $3,500, you can own the world's first hypoallergenic kitten. Yes folks, the kitten is due off the "assembly line" in 2007 and promises to solve the dilemma of cat lovers suffering from a cat allergy.

Allergy specialists, however, have their doubts.

The cat in question is no clone. It's also not fur-free. It's the product of animal genetic engineering, which will "silence" the gene that produces the Fel d 1 protein produced by a cat's glands. The protein is very prevalent in a cat's saliva and skin and causes a cat allergy in cat-loving (and hating) humans.

When the cat allergy gene is suppressed, the cat produces very little of the allergen protein, explains Simon Brodie, president of ALLERCA Inc., of Los Angeles, the biogenetics company developing this special cat.

"Many people think they're allergic to cat hair or dander, but they're really allergic to the protein," Brodie tells WebMD. "And the nice thing about this process, it doesn't completely suppress the protein production. If the cat still needs this protein, it's still expressing it, so it can produce the protein, but in such tiny amounts that it won't cause problems."

It's not allergy-free, but it produces much less allergen, he explains. "It's like hypoallergenic makeup. The allergens are still there, but in very small amounts that don't trigger allergic reactions."

A British shorthair cat -- a playful, friendly lineage - was chosen for this first line of hypoallergenic cats. Every kitten will be sold pre-spayed and neutered. "We don't want our cat to breed with a non-hypoallergenic cat and [have] someone attempt to sell the kittens as hypoallergenic," says Brodie.

"That's like buying a knockoff Gucci purse that hurts someone's health," he tells WebMD.

Cat Allergy Specialists Are Skeptical

"I have my doubts that this is going to work," says David Rosenstreich, MD, director of allergy and immunology at Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York. "Fel d 1 is the major protein that patients are allergic to. But there are other proteins that cats produce that people are allergic to. Getting rid of Fel d 1 will not create a completely non-allergenic cat," he tells WebMD.

"I'm not sure I like the idea of genetically manipulated cats, but I'll keep an open mind to it," says Gailen D. Marshall, MD, PhD, director of clinical immunology and allergy at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

A cat lover with a cat allergy doesn't have many options, he adds. Allergy shots suppress the symptoms, but the allergy is still there, which can be dangerous when asthma is involved. "And trying to bathe a cat is about as easy as herding cats," Marshall tells WebMD.

Since the "new cat" still produces small amounts of allergen, he's concerned about the cumulative effects. "It could be problematic over time. The allergen protein is very stable; it lives for long periods of time. This cat will still have dander, still groom itself, still have a kitty litter box. That cumulative amount could become an allergy issue -- it's simply delayed rather than eliminated."

Also, the Fel d 1 protein isn't the only allergen a cat produces, Marshall says. "That makes a big, big difference." A small percentage of cat allergy sufferers would be "just as allergic to that $3,500 cat as any cat from the SPCA."

The hypoallergenic cat "is an option, albeit an expensive one," he tells WebMD. "Until this animal is available for several years, I would reserve judgment. To suggest this is a panacea for a cat allergy is very premature."

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