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An Unassuming Missouri Cat Is the Archetype For Feline-Human Scientific Research Worldwide

PHOTO: The cover of one of Dr. C's latest books.


Cinnamon is a shy cat. While the other cats in Dr. Kristina Narfstrom's ophthalmology research center at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine vie for the attention of veterinary medical students and technicians, Cinnamon is more reticent, preferring to sit quietly and watch the other cats play and carouse.

The reddish-haired feline's introversion notwithstanding, Cinnamon is an important cat. In fact, scientifically, she may be one of the most important cats who has ever lived.

Of all of the cats in the world, Cinnamon has been chosen to be the definitive genetic model for all cats in a project called the feline genome project. By donating a small vial of blood, Cinnamon will provide scientists wherewithal to map the feline genetic structure, eventually allowing for each gene's function to be noted and studied.

Such data will be hugely important. Armed with this genetic navigation chart, scientists across disciplines will be better able to determine the location and function of each gene on the feline chromosome, allowing scientists to determine which genetic part causes diseases such as blindness and cancer. Knowing the location of malformed genes, scientists may soon be able to create gene therapies to cure previously unsolvable problems.

The effort to map the feline genome is directed by the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Previously, scientists have mapped the genomes for dogs, rats, mice, chickens, and humans. Each of these studies has given researchers tremendous research grist, providing important clues in a score of diseases. Though late to the game, the cat genome is a long anticipated tool for the researchers.

Dr. Narfstrom predicts that the feline genome will rapidly shed new research light on a number of cat and human medical problems including virus-mediated diseases, respiratory problems, cancers, AIDS, immunity problems, muscular dystrophy, polycystic kidney disorder, and Dr. Narfstrom's research specialty, retinal eye diseases. Cats and humans share about 250 genetic diseases.

Dr. Narfstrom is one of the many scientists worldwide who will benefit from the mapping of the feline genome. Dr. Narfstrom has spent her professional career, spanning continents, studying vision-threatening diseases caused by genetic defects. One defect, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), is a hereditary and blinding retinal disease of humans and affects approximately 1 person in 3,500. It is thus one of the most prevalent blinding diseases. About 100,000 people in the United States have been diagnosed with RP. Worldwide, approximately 1.5 million people have the problem. Most patients are legally blind by around age 40. There is no current cure.

Dr. Narfstrom notes that RP, that afflicts cats and humans, may be caused by mutations in any one of at least fifty different genes, resulting in a malfunction and a breakdown of the photoreceptor cells of the retina. The rod photoreceptors are often affected first by the disease, and then, somewhat later, also the cones. Blood vessels diminish in size in the retina as photoreceptors die.

Dr. Narfstrom is the MU College of Veterinary Medicine 's Ruth M. Kraeuchi-Missouri Professor in Veterinary Ophthalmology.

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Last Update: February 29, 2012