INQUIRY

Leslie Lyons

Seeking Friends for Felines

Leslie Lyons, one of the nation’s most accomplished feline geneticists, is the Gilbreath-McLorn Endowed Professor of Comparative Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine. In addition to running the Feline Genetics Laboratory at MU, Lyons heads up 99 Lives, a project enlisting support from private donors to cover the cost of sequencing the genomes of 99 cats. Lyons spoke to Illumination about the project, and how expanding the availability of feline genetic data could lead to health benefits both for cats and the people who love them. Learn more at felinegenetics.missouri.edu/99lives 

How complex is the feline genome? Will it be difficult to create what you’ve called a “robust, diverse genetic map” for the species?

The cat genome has similar complexity to any other mammalian genome: approximately 2.5 – 2.8 gigabases with 19,000 – 21,000 genes. Our job is to first identify the genes and then map each one onto one of the cat’s 18 chromosomes, in the correct location and order.  The task is daunting in all species, but perhaps more so for cats because there is less funding to support the effort.  

What sparked your personal interest in cat genomics?

The magnificence of the cat. It’s an extremely well-designed creature with beauty and excellence — the perfect athlete — while being wise and intelligent.

How did the 99 Lives project come about?

State of the art health care for humans now includes the genome sequencing of newborns with congenital abnormalities.  Cat researchers are pulling together, but we need projects such as 99 Lives since funding is so very tight. Our goal is to help cats keep pace with the genetic health standards available to humans and dogs.  

How many cats have been sequenced so far?

50 domestic cats, and some exotic cat species.  

The feline genetics lab at MU, appropriately referred to as the Lyons’ Den, has attracted support from several prominent funding agencies, among them the National Institutes of Health. Why is 99 Lives looking for crowd-sourced dollars?

NIH has a very low funding level these days — many investigators have lost their laboratories due to the funding crisis.  Sequencing demands big-time funds, so our needs go beyond what can be expected.  In addition, NIH prioritizes projects that serve as models for human disease. If we want to help just cats first, then we have to find other sources of funding.  

Your previous research has been instrumental in demonstrating that cats offer a number of insights into human diseases. What new knowledge do you hope might emerge from the 99 Lives project?

Generally, if the gene and mutation is known, more effective targeted treatments and drugs can be designed to treat the resulting disease.  We would love to find more causes for human heart disease, diabetes and obesity — of which cats also have plenty.  

What do the cats get out of the deal, therapeutically speaking?

Polycystic kidney disease, for example, is one of the most common diseases in cats as it is in humans. No effective treatment exists.  If we can test a drug on a cat, and it works well, then we get to fix cats and also move forward for possible human trials.  It’s a win-win situation. And the cats win first!  

Do you have cats?

Two, Withers and Figaro, a solid black and brown tabby, respectively.  

Are they participants in the sequencing project?

Not yet. I haven’t been able to justify spending funds on my own cats. Perhaps others might consider helping Withers and Figaro make the cut.

Where can they go to donate?

Our website: felinegenetics.missouri.edu

Leslie Lyons

Leslie Lyons
One of the nation’s most accomplished feline geneticists and the Gilbreath-McLorn Endowed Professor of Comparative Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine at MU

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