Is Murray hyopallergenic?

By Alison McCook Is Murray hypoallergenic? Murray the cat Courtesy of Eve Yohalem It was pouring rain the night that Eve Yohalem went to pick up her $6,000 kitten at the airport. She and her husband had been told to wait at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, where the cat would be arriving on a cross-country flight from Los Angeles. Finally, late that Friday night in October 2007, a cat carrier came into sight. Inside was the ti

By | June 1, 2009

Is Murray hypoallergenic?

Murray the cat
Courtesy of Eve Yohalem

It was pouring rain the night that Eve Yohalem went to pick up her $6,000 kitten at the airport. She and her husband had been told to wait at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, where the cat would be arriving on a cross-country flight from Los Angeles. Finally, late that Friday night in October 2007, a cat carrier came into sight. Inside was the tiniest striped kitten Yohalem had ever seen, which bore little resemblance to the photo she had received months earlier.

Yohalem was one of the first customers ever to receive an as-promised hypoallergenic animal from Allerca, a company that today sells allergy-proof cats and dogs for $7,000 and $9,000, respectively.

Allerca claims it has found cats that carry a natural mutation in the gene encoding the major cat allergen—the glycoprotein Fel d 1, which cats produce through their saliva and skin. By breeding cats with this mutation, the company says it has established a line of hypoallergenic cats that produce Fel d 1 with a different molecular weight, which is safe for allergic people. Yohalem, whose husband Nick is allergic, sent Allerca a check.

His owner—who paid $6000 for him—doesn't think so.

In the summer of 2007, after a year of waiting for the cat, calling frequently to check in, Allerca's founder Simon Brodie answered the phone and told Nick that their cat was ready. Soon thereafter Yohalem received a picture of her kitten, which was solid grey with a tiny white bib on its chest. Even though Murray had completely different markings than the cat in the photo, "we were ecstatic" when he arrived, says Yohalem, a children's book author. "He was this teeny, tiny, adorable kitten."

Then, Nick began to sniffle and sneeze. They vacuumed frequently, isolated the litter box, and kept air purifiers constantly pumping away (all of which they have continued). Nick's mild reaction eventually tapered off, but allergic visitors still react to Murray. "They can't tolerate him," says Yohalem. "We've had a couple people not be able to stay." To see if Murray truly was hypoallergenic, she decided to send a fur sample to Indoor Biotechnologies, a Virginia-based biotech that tests cats for levels of Fel d 1.

Martin Chapman, the founder of Indoor Biotechnologies, says that he can't draw any definite conclusions from Murray's Fel d 1 level, which fell at 48.62 μg per gram of fur. For one, there are no accepted ranges for Fel d 1 in cat fur, he says, so it's impossible to compare Murray's level to a standard amount. (The company also tests Fel d 1 in saliva, which says more about how allergenic an animal is, but unfortunately Murray would not cooperate enough for Yohalem to obtain a sample.) Allerca has not explained how Fel d 1 is modified, so it's also unclear whether the test is detecting modified Fel d 1 that would not affect allergic people. But given the fact that allergic guests cannot tolerate Murray, "we would not say that the cat is hypoallergenic," Chapman concludes.

Brodie admits that Murray might have the gene for the normal rather than the modified Fel d 1, but declines to provide any information about the nature of the genetic change in the gene, considering it a trade secret. "It's possible, and from what I'm hearing, probable" that Murray does not carry the mutated form of Fel d 1, Brodie says. The cost of testing every kitten to make sure it carries the modified form of Fel d 1 outweighs the "rare possibility" that the mutation isn't present, he says. Still, Fel d 1 is not the only allergen cats produce, so Allerca is careful to warn every potential customer that they may still react to their animal, even with the modified form of the gene. (The company guarantees that it will refund customers' money if they must return the cat, and around 5% of the 400 Allerca cats have been returned, Brodie says. For more on Allerca, see the January 2007 issue of The Scientist.)

Yohalem doesn't regret buying Murray—"we love our cat," she says. However, to save Nick from his allergies, "for all I know, we could have gotten a cat from the [pound]." Chapman proposed sequencing Murray's Fel d 1 gene or, more simply, measuring levels of unmodified Fel d 1 in the dust around Yohalem's home. Yohalem, however, isn't interested. "I feel confident enough that Murray is not hypoallergenic that I don't need a test to prove it," she says. Brodie, however, is willing to stand behind his company's claims, and to partner with scientists who want to investigate whether the animals are, indeed, hypoallergenic. "We know that this works," he says.

Editor's note (posted June 2): When originally posted, this story misspelled allergenic in one instance as allergic. The Scientist apologizes for the error, which has been corrected.


Comments

June 2, 2009

"The company also tests Fel d 1 in saliva, which says more about how allergic an animal is, " should read how "allergENic" since it's not the cat allergic to humans, but allergenic to humans.\n\nAlso (but that's not the editor's fault) the claim that "testing every cat for Fel d 1" to find the few ones which don't bear the mutation is preposterous: how much does nowadays cost a SNP or RT-PCR assay? If it's a mutation, it's either a SNP, a small mutation or a deletion --case in which you need a standard PCR assay, even cheaper. Smells like a swindle from miles away. Doesn't shock me, since I remember reading the (not exactly flattering) article about Allerca about 2 years ago in The Scientist...
Avatar of: Julie Nordlee

Julie Nordlee

Posts: 2

June 2, 2009

It just means that it is less allergenic than normal, whatever "normal" is when it comes to Fel d 1 so I'm not surprised that people are still sensitive.

June 3, 2009

If you have allergies, there is a good chance that by changing your diet, your allergies will dissipate. There is only one dis-ease and that is acidiosis or an acid body pH. This is the base of all the conditions doctors give long names to.....correct the problem thru nutrition and your problems will cease - very simple....it is unfortunate that not enough doctors are aware of this situation to really help their patients. Check out the book by Dr. Robert Young called the pH Miracle...and http://www.phmiracleliving.com/ - it is interesting to note that most people know more about the pH of their swimming pools and fish tanks than about the pH of their own body fluids....food for thought, no??\nAll the best\nIsabelle
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

June 5, 2009

Basic immunology - if an allergen is present one is allergic to, that means one has IgE that binds to it. Since most cats have version A of Fel d 1 then people will be allergic to that version A protein. \n\nIf a mutant version B of Fel d 1 is presented that does not stimulate the IgE one has, then one will have no reaction to it. Does this mean that version B will not cause allergy? No. Because the immune system will restart with version B and in a period of a week to several months, be producing IgE that binds to version B. \n\nFrankly, this whole thing is silly. People aren't allergic to just one thing, they are allergic to many things. It's the immune system that is over-active to respond to proteins presented that is the problem. Standard protocols to induce allergy in mice use egg albumin with adjuvant. \n\nCogito ergo kitty-cat-allergy.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

June 5, 2009

Thanks for the intriguing article. I have had pet allergies throughout my life. Although the basis was not made clear, several cat breeds were recommended to me as hypoallergenic, namely Russian Blue, Maine Coon, and Norwegian Forest cats. Anecdotally, some people are hyper-allergic to Russian Blue cats. I would be interested to know if any of the breeds I have mentioned are fel d1 deletion/mutation variants.\nI currently have a purebred Russian Blue cat. I bathe him once a year but otherwise I have far fewer allergy problems than with a previous "wild-type" stray who basically kept me sneezing constantly. I still react to other people's cats, so the issue is not with my changing immune system. \nIf an allergen gene variant was identified, unless it is linked to some lethality it should be readily possible to breed and test for homozygotes via standard molecular genetic methods. If the resulting cats are still highly allergenic, then claims of hypoallergenicity are either false or misleading. \n\nFinally, I paid less than a thousand dollars (US) for my Russian Blue, which may be typical for purebreds. Eight grand seems obscene for a cat; for that much money, I want mine cloned!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

June 6, 2009

Isabelle- your comment is complete bunk. Young is a convicted felon and a snake oil salesman. Cite some peer-reviewed examples to support this pH garbage. You can't.\n\n
Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 9

June 8, 2009

Definitely ridiculous to claim that for 7000? they cannot spend a dozen to test whether kittens have mutant or wild type genes, hardly the price of feeding the cat for a few days!

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