You know that moment when your cat jumps on your chest in the middle of the night, and you wake up to see Kitty staring down into your eyes? Imagine if you were to open your eyes and the cat above you had a greenish fluorescent glow?
Spooky or cool? I'll let you decide, but know that there is at least one domestic cat in this world that does indeed glow in the dark. Read on to discover why scientists made a glow-in-the-dark kitty and how that helped develop gene therapy.
This is the third and last part of an interview held with Professor Leslie A. Lyons, world-renowned feline geneticist and associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery. In the first part of the interview, Prof. Lyons talked about chromosomes, DNA, epigenetic switches and the domestication of the cat. In the second part, she shared her thoughts about available genetic testing kits and specifically, testing for PKD (Polycystic Kidney Disease). Now, in the third and last part, she explains about developing gene therapies that can help cats and humans alike, the 99 Lives project for sequencing the entire genome of cats, and how cat lovers like you and I can help further her research.
Gene Therapy - From Kitties to Humans
Back in 1993 Dolly the sheep, the world's first cloned animal, was a worldwide sensation. These days, cloning is hardly ever newsworthy, yet in 2008, one cloned cat made it to the headlines. In daylight, Mr. Green Genes was just an ordinary red tabby. Turn off the lights, and this kitty would issue a distinct fluorescent green glow. I asked Prof. Lyons, who was involved in this project, what made scientists want to create a glow-in-the-dark cat.
"The glow-in-the-dark-cat, that’s part of a means to an end," she replied. "The point is, you want to do gene therapy, but how do you know your gene is in there, even before it starts to work and fix the tissue? What you want to be able to do is see that it’s in there. You normally can’t see DNA, but you can put a little reporter, and that’s the green fluorescent protein, attached to the gene you want to put in. So now it says, 'Hey look, I’m in here, you can see me because if you turn on a UV light you can see that I’m glowing green'. So we didn't make a glow-in-the-dark-cat just to make a glow-in-the-dark-cat. We made a glow-in-the-dark-cat to prove that we can start doing gene therapies on cats."
Gene therapy deals with ways to fix the DNA inside cells. In theory, gene therapies could offer a cure for diabetes, for example, by fixing the DNA in a sick pancreas so that it can once again produce insulin. There is a lot of potential there, but to date, these therapies are limited to scientific research and have a long way to go before they become available to doctors and patients.
"We’re definitely trying," said Prof. Lyons, when I asked her about this, and told me that she herself is trying to establish a technique of gene therapy for retinal degeneration.
"I have two different breeds of cats that have blindness," she said. "My job is to find those genes and those mutations and then correct them in the cat using gene therapy. If that works in the cat, then we can try it in humans. There are a couple different ways to do it. One way is to take a very fine needle, like a hair-thin needle, and put it in the eye. You get right to the back of the eye, the retina, and squirt in the gene in the proper cells, maybe in a virus vector. That’s taken up by the other cells nearby, and it helps to regenerate the retina. Localized gene therapy is what we have to do. The hardest part about gene therapy is getting the gene to the right part of the body so that it’ll work. That becomes the trick with gene therapy, the delivery to the body."
So, what happened to Mr. Green Genes? Prof. Lyons says he's fine and still living at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans, where he was cloned and born. He helped scientists prove that they can introduce a new gene into the early embryo. It's a step in the right direction, but, Prof. Lyons reminds us that "you have to remember when you do it in the early embryo, you’re making a new individual that might have a different gene in it. What we want to do is take the old adult and fix that, and that’s the challenge."
99 Lives - The Feline Genome Project
It is possible to map the DNA structure of each individual, human, cat or of another species. For humans, the entire genome was mapped between 1983 and 2003. That means scientists sequenced the genes of enough human beings to have a clear picture of what human DNA looks like, including all common variations. But what about cats? Prof. Lyons initiated a similar project for the feline genome.
"The purpose is to do the complete genome of one hundred cats, and anybody can participate," she said. "The whole idea is for this to be publicly available. Any scientist who sequences one cat will get all the data from all the other cats that we have."
Prof. Lyons says that in humans, the fully mapped genome is helping doctors find new genetic diseases. When a patient appears with a new and unidentified condition, doctors can have the genes of that person sequenced, compare them to the genes of his or her parents, and find out where the mutation occurred.
"I would like to be able to do that for cats," said Professor Lyons. "If a breeder says, 'I have this new thing', it might be a fun thing, it might be something like the Lykoi cats, or it might be a health problem, you never know. But if I have all the genome sequence, and know all the genetic variations in cats, then I can identify it."
Once the feline genome is fully mapped, it becomes the benchmark for discovering new genetic mutations, allowing for a better understanding of feline medical conditions, and the potential for a possible cure in the future. This is something every cat lover and owner should appreciate, which brings me to the last topic I asked Prof. Lyons about - funding.
According to Prof. Lyons, while there certainly is funding for genetics, grants tend to be approved for research aimed at discovering cures for human diseases. Research that is focused solely on cats does not get adequate funding.
"Only one in ten grants get funded in the National Institutes of Health," reveals Prof. Lyons. "It’s very competitive. So, if I want to work on, say, finding the silver gene in cats, there is not going to be any funding for that. So, if I could get help from cat breeders and the general lay public just because they love cats, that would be really helpful."
There are many ways for us cat lovers to help with this research: using genetic testing for cats, donating money for research or even taking an active part in the 99 Lives Project and sending in DNA samples. Feline genetics studies can directly influence the development of veterinary care for cats, and, eventually, help develop new therapies for human diseases as well. Please take a few minutes to visit Prof. Lyons's website to learn more about how you can help promote the genetic research of cats.