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What cats can teach us about human genetic diseases

Even though cats have been domesticated for millennia, dogs are often favored when it comes to scientific research. Veterinary Medicine expert Leslie Lyons from the University of Missouri aims to change this. She argues that the advantages of using cats in research is really overlooked.

“The dog or mouse genome have rearranged chromosomes that are quite different than humans, but the domestic cat has genes that are about the same size as humans, as well as a genome that, like humans, is very organized and conserved.”

Lyons explained that specifically, cats could help researchers better understand humans’ genetic “dark matter.” This unclassified genetic material is currently considered filler information of little to no consequence, yet it makes up 95 percent of human DNA. 

Furthermore, approximately 10 percent of the noncoding regions within genetic dark matter is conserved across mammals, which suggests that its role is important and misunderstood. For example, cats sometimes develop genetic diseases related to the dysfunction of their dark matter, demonstrating significant importance and a potential case study for this type of research.

“As we discover that perhaps animals have more similar spacing between genes and the genes are in the same order, maybe that will help us to decipher what’s going on with humans,” said Lyons. “Working with a primate is on the expensive side, but a cat’s affordability and docile nature make them one of the most feasible animals to work with to understand the human genome.”

Furthermore, scientists have access to technology that would facilitate the cloning and creation of transgenic cats, with the first cloned “CopyCat” being generated in 2001. Despite her typical calico cat donor having black, orange, and white fur, CopyCat did not have any orange on her coat, defying many basic genetic principles. This presented clues about feline genes that are just beginning to be understood.

Our feline friends could also play an important role in precision medicine for genetic diseases, allowing researchers to fix genetic disorders as opposed to treating the symptoms. For example, some cats are prone to polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that also affects humans. Research into this could allow us to treat humans for the disease in the future.

“Vets could sequence the genes and potentially more quickly find the cause of what’s going on and then develop a treatment that is more appropriate than just treating the symptoms,” explained Lyons. “We can provide a more tailored healthcare program for our pets, and more funding would put all the different pieces into place.”

The Forum was published in Trends in Genetics.

By Calum Vaughan, Staff Writer

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