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University of Missouri

Kitty Catch-up

Dogs have been man’s best research pet, but a new MU professor is helping cats catch up.

persian kitten

Genetic research on cats lags far behind that of dogs, a situation MU Professor Leslie Lyons is trying to change. Public domain image.

A team of veterinary clinicians and geneticists at the University of Missouri has created a kind of pipeline where animal diseases are identified, causes investigated and treatments developed. But the pipeline doesn’t just find scientific breakthroughs. It also finds professors.

In summer 2013, it brought Leslie Lyons, noted cat researcher from the University of California, Davis, to Mizzou.

Lyons was named the Gilbreath-McLorn endowed professor in comparative medicine, which comes with an endowment to supplement her salary and support her research. She also received university startup funds to get her research up to speed fast. All those things made it easy to say yes to Mizzou. “[But] I don’t want to underplay how important people like Gary Johnson and the neurology team are,” she says. “Here is a team of clinicians who is thinking about genetics all the time” and constantly looking for new diseases it can characterize and pass along through the pipeline. “The atmosphere of collegiality should not be underestimated here.”

Lyons is looking to do with cats what Johnson does with dogs. Mere months after her arrival, she received a grant from the Winn Feline Foundation to launch the 99 Lives Cat Genome Sequencing Initiative to sequence the genomes of at least 99 cats and store the information in a centralized database.

“The key is building up huge databases,” Lyons says.

Like dogs, cats have roughly 20,000 genes, each with multiple variants. But recognizing a rare disease-causing variant from among all the harmless variants is a difficult task without a multitude of sequenced genomes from genetically normal cats to compare against.

Though there are about 100,000 humans who have had their genome sequenced and about 500 dogs, only about 20 sequenced cat genomes exist, which made the funding and institutional expertise to do her own sequencing at MU another big draw.

Robert Schnabel, research assistant professor of molecular biochemistry, and Jerry Taylor, Wurdack Endowed Chair and Curators Professor of Animal Science, have done extensive work in genome sequencing and learned much through trial and error. Which means, Lyons says, “We get to go in and, very efficiently, not make those same mistakes.”

The benefits of plugging into the Mizzou pipeline were perhaps never more clear than when Lyons brought her research on Persian kitten blindness with her from UC-Davis. The feline blindness in cats is a model for a rare human disease, Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects two to three of every 100,000 newborns but is nevertheless one of the most common causes of blindness in children.

Lyons had worked for years on the Persian cats but had been limited by funding and graduate student interest. With the resources at MU, she immediately had the cats genetically sequenced. “As soon as we got that data back, we nearly instantly found the mutation,” she says. “I’d been working on that project for 14 years and — boom — within one year of being here, we got it.”

With the exact DNA base pair mutation in hand, she’s now putting together what will likely be an international collaboration of researchers who will develop gene therapy and/or stem cell therapy to treat the disease in cats, with the ultimate goal of developing a cure in humans. This project exemplifies Mizzou Advantage’s One Health/One Medicine initiative.