For those who wish they could own a cat but itch, sneeze and scratch whenever they go near one, there's some good news in sight.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge say they have found a single protein in cat hair responsible for triggering allergic reactions and are hopeful it will lead to a cure.
The protein, called Fel d 1, is found in microscopic pieces of animal skin often accompanied by dried saliva from grooming. When the protein combines with a common bacterial toxin found in the environment called lipopolysaccharide, or LPS, the human body's receptors pick it up, which triggers an allergic reaction.
"How cat dander causes such a severe allergic reaction in some people has long been a mystery," said lead researcher Clare Bryant. "Not only did we find out that LPS exacerbates the immune response's reaction to cat dander, we identified the part of the immune system that recognizes it, the receptor TLR4."
The researchers used a medication that curbs the immune response and found it blocks the effects of the cat dander protein on human cells, thereby preventing an inflammatory response. The hope is that a pill will be on the market within the next several years and will open the door to new treatments for people with both cat and dog allergies.
Dr. Douglas Jones, an allergist with Rocky Mountain Asthma, Allergy and Immunology in Layton, said in general, cat allergy is widespread across the nation as about half of all households have a cat or dog in them.
"Cat allergy is one of the more common allergies that I see," Jones said. "This article is one example of many with similar findings. Studies with LPS and TLR4 are really promising for not only cat allergies, but for a variety of allergies."
Jones said the availability of such a drug would be many years away.
"Cat-lovers who have allergies to them don't have to just live with it or avoid them," he said. "Instead of getting rid of the cat, people can get rid of the cat allergy."
Jones said the most effective treatment for cat allergy is cat-specific immunotherapy, which are allergy shots. They are highly effective in reducing and potentially eliminating cat allergy.
"For those who have asthma triggered by cats, allergy shots can help reduce and eliminate that as well," Jones said. "The dosing, administration and monitoring of allergy shots is most effective when done by a board-certified allergist. It really does matter who patients see for this type of treatment. Despite what the Internet says with creative website and marketing, there is no such thing as cats that are genetically engineered to be hypoallergenic."