MU researchers study cat genomes to treat human allergies

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Cat genome sequences don't just tell us about cats anymore. The work of University of Missouri researchers is unlocking cat genomes so they can help us better understand human diseases.

Researchers from the MU College of Veterinary Medicine are looking at genetic causes for diseases common among cats and other animals, including humans. Finding the genetic root of afflictions such as allergies in cats could help researchers find treatments for allergies in humans, the Columbia Missourian reported.

Leslie Lyons, the Gilbreath-McLorn endowed professor of comparative medicine at MU, has led the 99 Lives Cat Genome Sequencing Initiative since 2013.

The initiative has been building a database of cat genomes from veterinarians, researchers and cat owners who are curious about their cats' diseases. Other researchers use the database to look for genetic causes of the health problems.

Cats and humans share a lot of common diseases such as allergies, asthma, obesity and diabetes, according to Lyons.

She studies the polycystic kidney disease, which causes cysts in the kidney. It's not discussed often, Lyons said, but it's common in cats, and it's more common in humans than sickle cell, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy combined.

The similarity between cat and human genomes means a treatment that works for one could also work for the other. If research showed there was a diet that could be therapeutic for cats with polycystic kidney disease, Lyons said researchers would try the diet on humans.

Along with common diseases, researchers are also looking into rare genetic health problems.

Yoshihiko Yu, a visiting scholar at MU, works in the program researching epilepsy. The program sequenced four cats from the same colony and analyzed them for epilepsy.

In that colony, many cats from the same family had epilepsy, meaning it should be genetic, Yu said.

Genome sequencing helped narrow down the region where researchers would find traits related to epilepsy, which will be helpful for further research.

Cats and larger animals are more useful for the study than smaller ones. It's difficult to see kidney cystic changes in mice or rats, Lyons said.

The program also accepts genomes of wild felids, including lions and tigers. 99 Lives works with zoo associations that work to conserve endangered species.

The Felid Taxon Advisory Group once alerted the program that black-footed cats in zoos around the country were going blind. Lyons and other researchers got involved and found the genetic cause. The first presenting cat was from the Kansas City Zoo - then other zoos in the U.S. sent in samples of their black-footed cats for screening.

The result helped prevent inbreeding between two cats, which would have been more likely to reproduce the genetic cause of blindness in their offspring, Lyons said.

Reuben Buckley, a postdoctoral fellow, works on storing and interpreting genomic data. Buckley looks for genetic differences between sick cats and healthy cats by studying their DNA sequence.

"Basically, I have to figure out the signal from the noise," Buckley said.

Instead of skim sequencing, which is a low-resolution analysis of a cat's genome sequences, 99 Lives does deep sequencing, which requires repeatedly sequencing each cat's genome for a clearer picture.

"When you do deep sequencing, you are very certain that the variations you have identified are true and accurate," Lyons said.

The public has shown support for the program by donating through the Mizzou Give Direct crowdfunding portal. Initially, Lyons set $21,000 as the goal of online fundraising. As of October 2018, the program has brought in more than five times that amount.

Because of the improvement of technology and human medicine, those funds stretch further today than when the program started. In 2013, sequencing a whole genome would cost $7,000. The cost today is $3,000.

For future research, however, 99 Lives needs to continue raising funds. Lyons said donors can write in how they want the program to use their money.

The program's first goal was to sequence 100 cats. They've sequenced close to 200, according to Lyons.

The program cooperates with nearly 40 institutions, comprising over 50 researchers from different countries, including the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Italy, Sweden and Germany.

"I've noticed that the more a group can pull together and share their resources together, the more powerful your tools will be," Lyons said.

Along with improving treatment of diseases in humans, Lyons said there are two main reasons 99 Lives' work is important.

The program reminds people how important pets are in people's lives, Lyons said. They bring us love, joy and passion. They teach children responsibility. Service animals help people with disabilities.

Plus, as their keepers, humans have responsibility for the animals' welfare, Lyons said.

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