Time magazine’s list of Best Inventions of 2006 included an unusual creation. It wasn’t a gadget; it was a cat.
“Love cats but your nose doesn’t?” the magazine asked. “A San Diego company is breeding felines that are naturally hypoallergenic.” There was a 15-month waiting list for the “sniffle-proof kitties,” which sold for $3,950 or more.
The company selling the cats, Allerca, had tapped into a tantalizing dream for allergy-prone cat lovers: the hypoallergenic cat. Given that just two genes are responsible for making cats a problem for many people, it seemed like a no-brainer to engineer cats that lacked those genes, or to simply breed cats with versions of the genes that made the animals less allergenic.
But so far, itchy-eyed cat lovers have been left disappointed.
By 2010, Allerca had stopped taking orders — and lawsuits were lining up. The sniffle-proof kitties never materialized. Some angry customers said they never received a kitten, others were sent a cat that triggered their allergies.
But for all those who haven’t given up hope, there may be new options around the corner. An allergic owner might pop open a can of allergy-fighting food — for the cat. Or maybe vaccinate the cat to produce fewer allergens. And allergy shots for owners might shift from burdensome weekly or monthly injections to a shot that offers immediate relief.
The new gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 might even come to the rescue, delivering the ultimate dream to those who can afford it: a cat that doesn’t produce allergens at all. One company has made some progress applying CRISPR/Cas9 to cats.
Success in taming cat allergies could bring good news for people whose allergies have nothing to do with cats. If any of the cat allergy–fighting measures prove safe and effective, they could be deployed against other allergens, especially airborne ones like pollen, dog dander or dust mites. With up to 30 percent of the world’s population suffering from airborne allergens, that’s plenty of runny noses to dry up.
When it comes to cat allergies, the main culprit is Fel d1, a small protein produced primarily in cats’ salivary and sebaceous glands. Fel d1 is found in flakes of dead skin, or dander, and is spread to hair when a cat licks itself. Thus it’s not cat hair that people are allergic to, just hair coated in cat spit.