By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
On the prowl for a scientific discovery about domestic cats that can benefit human health, researchers at the University of Missouri find that cats are more genetically similar to humans than nearly all other mammals.
Leslie Lyons, PhD, a Gilbreath–McLorn endowed professor of comparative medicine in the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, provides new evidence about the cat-human perspective using DNA sequencing technology. Lyons and her team in the Feline Genetics and Comparative Medicine Laboratory contributed to decades of genome DNA sequencing. Now that the cat genome assembly is nearly 100% complete, Lyons found the layout of the cat genome to be very similar to the human genome.
“A major accomplishment,” Lyons explained. “And it’s such a good reference assembly. It’s nearly, if not better, than the human genome assembly that we’ve been working intensely on for 40 years.”
Lyons’ lab is part of the Feline Genome Project, an international research effort focused on the improvement of genomic and genetic resources for the domestic cat. Having success with the near completion of the cat genome, Lyons ‘let the cat out of the bag’ with findings published in Trends in Genetics. Now, the world is made aware the human genome is surprisingly catlike.
Other than primates, the cat-human comparison is one of the closest. Cats are more genetically similar to humans than nearly any other mammal, even more similar than that of mice or dogs – both are commonly used as biomedical models. Research with primates is expensive and Lyons says felines are underutilized in genetic studies of disease.
Because the cat genome is so similar to the human genome, the emphasis now is on the “dark matter’ in cat genomes, which may shed light on human disease. ‘Dark matter’ DNA, or the 98% of DNA with no obvious functions, may play a regulatory role in turning certain genes on or off, but that role is not quite fully understood by researchers.
“If the dark matter is organized more similar between a cat and a human, maybe we can find more things more quickly and readily in the cat genome to compare to the human genome,” said Lyons.
Advancements in translational medicine can lead to new treatments for diseases with the development of therapies targeting regulatory sequences. Research comparing cat and human genomes can help figure out diseases that affect people and cats.
“They (cats) naturally have diseases that are the same as human diseases such as polycystic kidney disease, inherited blindness and many of the cancers,” Lyons said. “We can do a lot of work just with blood samples or opportunistic tissue samples, such as, if we’re studying cancer you’re removing a tumor because you’re trying to treat that animal. But we can study the DNA from that tumor.”
Translational medicine can benefit human and veterinary medicine with the advancement of new treatments for common diseases among the general public and cats – such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and allergies. One recent example highlighting translational medicine happened at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lyons explained the development of the COVID-19 antiviral drug remdesvir stems from studies treating infected cats.
“The importance of the cat biomedical model was highlighted, and unfortunately, is rather important with COVID-19. So before COVID even hit, cats have been studied as far as their own coronavirus,” Lyons explained. “So they have an alpha coronavirus and it causes feline infectious peritonitis. Well, if a cat gets feline infectious peritonitis, FIP, they’re dead. It’s a death sentence for a cat. But many groups started working with drug companies to test these nucleoside analogs to see if they would help with the treatment of FIP. Well, lo and behold, they do. And guess what? One of them is basically remdesivir.”
Veklury (remdesvir) became the first treatment for COVID-19 approved by the FDA. A recent study shows that using the drug early in the course of the COVID-19 infection helps high-risk patients avoid the hospital.
“The basic designer drug that is the key component in remdesivir was already known and known to be effective for the treatment of coronavirus illnesses in domestic cats years before COVID struck humans.”
In Lyons’ research, man’s best friend takes a backseat, but not for too long. Even dogs can benefit from the cat’s rise into the spotlight.
“Things found in cats can potentially help dogs,” she said. “Cat research could easily help dog health care as well.”