The Unappreciated Importance of Cats (to Medical Science)

Researchers who work on the genomes of domestic and wild cats say their DNA holds clues to human as well as feline health.

People tend to either love them or hate them, and cats are often underappreciated by the scientific community,” said Leslie Lyons, a professor at the University of Missouri.Credit…Juarawee Kittisilpa/Reuters

Leslie Lyons is a veterinarian and specialist in cat genetics. She is also a cat owner and general cat partisan who has been known to tease her colleagues who study dog genetics with the well-worn adage that “Cats rule. Dogs drool.”

That has not been the case with research money and attention to the genetics of disease in cats and dogs, partly because the number of dog breeds offers variety in terms of genetic ailments and perhaps because of a general bias in favor of dogs. But Dr. Lyons, a professor at the University of Missouri, says there are many reasons cats and their diseases are invaluable models for human diseases. She took up the cause of cat science this week in an article in Trends in Genetics.

“People tend to either love them or hate them, and cats are often underappreciated by the scientific community,” she writes. But, she says, in some ways the organization of the cat genome is much like the human genome, and cat genomics could help in the understanding of the vast amount of mammalian DNA that does not constitute genes, and is poorly understood.

Among the advances in veterinary medicine that have benefited humans, she pointed out that remdesivir, an important drug in combating Covid, was first successfully used against a cat disease caused by another coronavirus.

She is the director of the 99 Lives Cat Genome Sequencing Initiative and as part of that project, she and a group of colleagues, including Wes Warren at the University of Missouri and William Murphy at Texas A&M University, recently produced the most detailed genome of the cat to date, which surpasses the dog genome.

“For the moment,” Dr. Lyons said.

I spoke last week with Dr. Lyons, Dr. Warren and Dr. Murphy, who refer to themselves as Team Feline. Dr. Lyons was visiting Texas, and with two of her colleagues she talked about why the genomes of cats are important to medical knowledge.

I report on animal science, and over the years, I admitted to the members of Team Feline, I seem to have written more about dogs than cats. The dog-cat rivalry in genomic science is mostly a good-natured rivalry, but just to assess what I was getting myself into I first asked about the scientists’ nonscientific approach to cats and dogs.

Source: NY Times