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ISSUE 120 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/6/2006

Engineered cats alarm

By Kirstin Fawcett
Contributing Writer

Friday, October 6, 2006

Generally speaking, even the most die-hard feline fancier would probably refuse to pay $3,950 for a cat. However, California-based biotechnology company Allerca, set to market the world’s first hypoallergenic kittens in 2007, believes that cat lovers with allergies will be willing to shell out the big bucks.

Allerca, which announced its plans to breed and market allergen-free cats in early 2004, advertise itself as a “pet company whose mission is to connect people with pets according to their lifestyle.” Since approximately 10 percent of all Americans (as well as millions of people worldwide) are allergic to cats, Allerca has jumpstarted its mission of “connecting people with pets” through genetic engineering.

Allerca geneticists have managed to suppress the allergy-causing Fel d 1 protein which all cats secrete out of their sebaceous glands, creating a kitten with a divergent gene that produces a non-allergenic version of Fel d 1. Allerca has exposed allergic humans to Allerca cats, and the humans remained unaffected.

The first batch of genetically engineered Allerca kittens will be on the market in less than a year. Pre-purchasing options requiring a $250 down payment are available for future cat owners who just can’t wait for their furry friends. While an Allerca kitten is expensive, its price also includes cat health care staples such as vaccinations, mandatory spaying or neutering and FDA-approved allergy tests for the owner. Additional items included are an Allerca airline-certified cat transporter, vinyl claw covers, premium kitten food and cat toys. The kitten, along with its Allerca goodies, is flown by private jet to a nearby airport, where the customer can officially claim the kitten after paying an additional $1,000 transportation fee.

An Allerca kitten’s expense is only one reason why many are hesitant about genetically engineered cats. For one, Allerca has made it policy to spay or neuter all kittens before delivery so that the cats cannot reproduce. Others worry that the time, money and anticipation they invest in their kitten will prove futile if the FDA refuses to permit the cats to be sold. Allerca president Simon Brodie dismisses this concern by referencing the FDA’s allowing the genetically engineered GloFish in 2004.

Finally, allergy specialists doubt Allerca’s claims that the kittens are entirely allergy free. While Allerca cats’ Fel d 1 protein is reduced, their saliva, fur and urine still contain trace amounts which might prove allergenic. Brodie admits that the cats aren’t entirely hypoallergenic, but claims that the kittens’ Fel d 1 will be produced in such low amounts that it won’t be enough to trigger allergic reactions.

While Allerca claims that “the health and well-being of the animal is [our] top priority,” one must wonder what health issues will be spurred by animal genetic engineering. The purpose of Fel d 1 production in cats is not known, making the fate of Allerca cats who produce lesser amounts of the protein uncertain. Also, Allerca has only been breeding Fel d 1-free cats for a few years, not long enough to observe whether the manipulated Fel d 1 genes spur unpredicted physiological changes.

These concerns are viable, especially since Allerca’s warranty for the kittens is only one year. While the idea of a hypoallergenic kitten is enticing to those who love the idea of being able to stroke a cat without sneezing, it is probably best to wait several more years to see the results of Allerca’s experiment before shelling out $3,950 for a mere one year of feline companionship.

Staff writer Kirstin Fawcett is a sophomore from Bowie, Md. She majors in English.

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