I recently stumbled across a HowStuffWorks podcast on the topic of allergy-free (hypoallergenic) cats. Nearly 20% of Americans suffer from cat allergies, including me. A company called Allerca claims to have genetically bred a cat that even I could live comfortably with. Curious about the science, I decided to probe a little further.
Turns out Allerca’s claims of a sniffle-free kitty are suspect, to say the least (see this 2006 article from The Scientist, and this ABC News report). There’s never been an independent, peer-reviewed study actually showing that the company’s cats come close to delivering on their promise. The company instead cites its own studies, complete with “scientific” data on their website.
Upon closer examination, however, this data is unquestionably shoddy. Have a look at the photograph of one of the company’s test results (called a western blot) showing the molecular differences between allergen proteins produced by normal cats (lanes 1 and 2) and the Allerca hypoallergenic cats (in lanes 3, 4, and 5). The banding patterns for control cats should be similar, assuming their genetic makeup is the same; likewise for hypoallergenic cats. But are the patterns for the hypoallergenic cats too similar?
As pointed out by Scientist article commenter Quentin Vicens, the banding pattern in lane 3, rotated by 180 degrees, appears to be suspiciously similar to that in lane 5. Have a look. It’s the scientific equivalent of putting Britney Spears’ head (inverted) on someone else's body, with a little blending powder courtesy of Adobe Photoshop thrown in. In other words, it's pretty clear the data aren't real. If this were a federally funded study, you can bet charges of scientific misconduct would be brought.
These cats are $5,000 to $27,000 a pop, yet may be no more “hypoallergenic” than a cat at the local shelter - there's really no way for the consumer to know. As genetic technologies make their way further and further into popular society, it really is incumbent upon the scientific community to call out suspect companies or bogus applications as they pop up. The idea that "athletic ability" is revealed by 23andme's $399 genetic testing service falls squarely into this category.
Consumers have already filed multiple complaints against Allerca and its parent company, Lifestyle Pets. The Better Business Bureau gives them a rating of "F."
Did I mention that the Allerca cat received a "Best Inventions of 2006" award from Time Magazine? Evidently nobody checked the science.