Molecular research improves worldwide feline health

Tests used to detect a range of infectious and genetic diseases in cats have informed diagnosis, treatment and breeding programmes.

Cats are prone to a number of specific infections and diseases – including feline herpesvirus, feline immunodeficiency virus and polycystic kidney disease (PKD) – many of which can be ultimately fatal if not treated properly.

Quick and definitive diagnosis of an infection or disease ensures the individual cat gets the right treatment, but it also triggers management actions that can help reduce the prevalence of the disease. Infectious cats, for example, may be kept indoors to prevent spread of the disease, while inherited diseases can be selectively bred out of populations.

Genetic screening

Over the last decade, Dr Chris Helps, Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Molecular Diagnostic Unit and Dr Séverine Tasker, Reader in Feline Medicine, have developed a series of molecular tests that are used to detect infectious agents and genetic diseases.

The tests, known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays and quantitative PCR assays (qPCR), are used to detect and quantify target DNA sequences – either in the cat or an infecting agent, such as a virus.

To date, the team has developed 12 tests that are used to investigate a range of important feline infectious diseases and 10 tests for detecting a range of genetic diseases.

These were the first tests of their kind to be developed and made commercially available in the UK and since they were introduced in 2002, the Bristol team has performed more than 53,000 tests on 40,000 cats. This has generated over £1.7 million income for LVS (a wholly owned subsidiary of the University of Bristol), which continues to support the development of new infectious and genetic disease PCR assays.

Cat breeders across Europe have submitted samples to Bristol for genetic screening.

Breeding out inherited diseases

The results have been used in selective breeding programmes to “breed-out” inherited diseases. In the eight years that Bristol has been running the tests, there has been a 90 per cent reduction in the number of cats testing positive for the PKD mutation.

This is ultimately saving future generations of cats from the fate of this kidney disease as well as cat owners from the associated expenses and heartache.

The number of veterinary services using these diagnostic assays has increased with each passing year.

Worldwide Guidelines, which direct vets in the therapies and management actions to take based on qPCR results, have now been established and include the research conducted at Bristol.

International laboratories are now offering infectious disease testing

The benefit of this research has reached well beyond the UK.

The Bristol team have shared reagents derived from the PCR assay development and as a result other international laboratories are now offering infectious disease testing by PCR assays. Some of the countries include Iran, Israel, New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, Indonesia, France, Australia, The West Indies, and USA, enabling cats worldwide to be tested for infectious agents.

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