Many people have been concerned about the health effects of genetically tweaked fruits and veggies, but a recent advancement in genetic modification involving household pets has raised hackles for its ethical implications. The San Diego–based Allerca Inc. has created “hypoallergenic” cats — that is, cats that don’t produce the glycoprotein responsible for inducing itchy eyes, sneezing and hives. One of these kittens wil set you back $3,950, a few hundred times more than picking up a stray at the local shelter. Like modified produce, Allerca’s cats have their undesirable genes silenced — in this case, by altering the recipe for glycoprotein normally found in fur and saliva. These cats have cells that destroy the chemical, rather than produce it. Unlike genetically modified foods, the modified cats don’t affect human health — beyond the absence of sniffles and sneezes, that is.
The effect on the cats is a different story, however. “Developing a hypoallergenic cat is far from a perfect science,” says Tracie Letterman, executive director of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, which opposes animal testing. “There is no guarantee that these animals will live average, healthy life spans.” In addition, she says, gene silencing is typically a trial-and-error process — some of the altered animals are likely born unhealthy or deformed, or don’t exhibit the allergy-free traits scientists seek. Each time this happens, researchers go back to the lab to tweak another part of the genetic profile, and while each failure brings them closer to success, the outlook isn’t so bright for the animals that don’t live up to spec. Allerca’s lab practices aren’t public, but in a typical laboratory, says Letterman, “animals who do not have the ‘right’ profile are likely to be considered nothing more than by-products.” And byproducts, by and large, are destroyed.
So what about the animals who turn out “right”? Allerca cats will, in theory, lead normal kitten lives: romping with yarn balls, scratching up couches, and getting checkups at the neighborhood vet. This poses another problem — as Letterman points out, “general veterinarians have no specialized training in the care of genetically altered animals, and they may not be prepared to treat ailing hypoallergenic cats.” Their owners will be similarly challenged. Maybe genetically modified pets will have some effect on humans, after all.
Story by Erika Villani. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.