If the sight of a fluffy kitten playing with a toy reduces you to tears, you’re probably not alone. If your tears are the result of an involuntary allergic reaction, however, you may soon be in luck.
Researchers led by Dr Clare Bryant at the University of Cambridge have unearthed the cause of the coughing and sneezing that many people experience in the presence of cats. It’s hoped that this knowledge will lead to the development of treatments, or maybe even preventative medicine, in the near future.
An allergy occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to what it thinks is a dangerous virus or bacteria. The protein 'Fel d 1' found in cat dander – microscopic flakes of cat skin – is the most common cause of allergic reactions to felines. But it’s when this protein is combined with a common bacterial toxin called lipopolysaccharide (LPS) that the reaction is at its worst.
When the scientists exposed human cells to the Fel d 1 protein, they found that it triggered the strongest response from the immune system when LPS was present. They also discovered that the immune system's response was controlled by a receptor in the human body known as TLR 4.
Now that the responsible receptor has been identified, scientists hope that drugs which target this receptor will soon lead to treatments for cat allergies. Drugs for other conditions involving the TLR 4 receptor are already in clinical trials, so cat lovers who’ve always had to admire felines from afar may not have long to wait.
Not a cat person? Don’t despair. There’s also been research suggesting that dog allergies can be treated in a similar way.