Animals
6:35 pm
Fri September 16, 2011

Glowing Kittens Fight AIDS

Here's an experiment: turn off your lights. Shine a blue flashlight on the cats in the room. Look for the ones that turn neon green, like a glow stick.

That's how scientists at the Mayo clinic identify cats that they've successfully treated against the feline immunodeficiency virus.

The AIDS epidemic is well-known amongst humans. Less known is that every year, millions of cats suffer and die from the infection.

To protect cats against feline AIDS, the Mayo Clinic and colleagues in Japan devised a treatment with a peculiar side effect. Take monkey genes that block HIV infection, and inject them into cat eggs. Kittens born from those eggs produce AIDS-resistant protein in the same cells that get infected, effectively shielding them from the disease. When they're grown up, their offspring are also immune.

To tell the treated cats from the untreated ones, scientists add another simple ingredient to the mix: jellyfish genes.

Dr. Eric Pershla, a molecular biologist with the Mayo Clinic, tells Guy Raz, the host of weekends on All Things Considered, "It allows you to tell whether the gene of interest is in the cell without having to do an invasive test." Scientists simply turn off the lights and shine a blue light to tell which subjects have the AIDS-resistant gene.

The cats don't feel a thing, Dr. Pershla says. "They're healthy and happy and they're playful."

The feline treatment could help other mammals down the line. The Mayo team isn't injecting human stem cells with the monkey-jellyfish concoction. But they are watching cats for new insights. Dr. Pershla explains, "If they have the power to protect, then they could perhaps be used in the future in human gene therapy."

Dr. Pershla has been asked: "How can I get one?"

Unfortunately, you can't. He explains, "There's no commercial aspects to this." The Mayo Clinic isn't selling glow-in-the-dark kitties.

To read the scientific findings in depth, see the team's article in Nature Methods.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.