Green-glowing cats light the way to possible new AIDS treatment

There is a lesser-known, hidden aspect to the devastating AIDS pandemic. Cats. Millions of our feline friends die every year of FIV, the feline version of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It is contracted primarily by feral cats, but can also infect the household variety. Now, researchers are shining a new light on FIV/AIDS by engineering a cat that glows green to show areas where genes have been altered in research that has implications for cats and humans alike.

Eric Poeschla, of the Mayo Clinic, led the study appearing in Nature Methods. The cat and human versions of key proteins that defend other mammals against viruses--called restriction factors--are not effective against FIV and HIV. The Mayo team, along with collaborators in Japan, tried to mimic the way evolution normally gives rise to protective protein versions. They figured out a way to insert effective monkey versions of them into the cat genome, placing them into feline eggs before sperm fertilization. Then they slipped in a jellyfish gene for tracking purposes, which makes the cats' offspring glow green.

"This provides the unprecedented capability to study the effects of giving AIDS-protection genes into an AIDS-vulnerable animal," Poeschla tells Reuters. They used a rhesus macaque restriction factor known to block cell infection by FIV. It works by attacking and disabling the virus's outer shield as it tries to invade a cell.

So far, the experiment has worked, producing 8 kittens with the modified gene that glow green so that the altered cells can be easily detected by scientists. If scientists see that these kittens are now protected from FIV, that could open up new areas of inquiry in gene therapy to fight HIV.

- read the Mayo Clinic release
- and a report from Reuters
- and the abstract in Nature Methods