Researchers from the University of Florida and University of California, San Francisco are reporting a surprise finding that may lead to the development of an effective vaccination against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). And the finding involves cats.

More specifically, it involves the discovery of an immune response in humans infected with HIV to a specific protein associated with the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

If successful, the development of this particular vaccine product will mark the first time that T-cells have been used in a vaccine to prevent disease. It’s a novel approach to a serious and difficult to solve problem.

T-cells are a part of the immune system, the natural response of the body to rid itself of disease. In this case, a peptide (a small protein) which is part of the makeup of the FIV virus has been found to activate a response by T-cells, allowing them to recognize, attack, and destroy cells infected with HIV.

Researchers had previously been looking at T-cell based immune responses to HIV peptides. But they reached a stumbling block when they found that while some peptides can stimulate an immune response, others can actually potentiate infection, and still others simply seem to have no effect at all. Another stumbling block is the fact that, for those peptides that do induce an immune response, that response can be lost when/if the virus mutates, making the development of a vaccine using these peptides problematic.

However, researchers found recently that the inclusion of certain FIV peptides in a vaccine for HIV can be effective in inducing the necessary immune response and, apparently, mutation is not likely to be an issue with these peptides.

Researchers stress that this finding, though significant in terms of advancement in the fight against HIV, does not mean that FIV is contagious to people. So, don’t panic that you’re going to get AIDS from your cat, even if your cat is infected with FIV.

This HIV research is an exciting and important new discovery. However, this is far from being the first time that cats have been instrumental in finding answers to human health issues. Cats have been used as models for studying a number of different diseases. Cats have been used as a model for HIV infection for quite some time, because of the similarities between FIV infection and HIV infection. The two viruses are different from one another but are distantly related and can cause similar symptoms in cats and humans, respectively.

Some of the other human diseases which have been or are being studied with cats as models for disease include cardiomyopathies and other forms of heart disease, diabetes (particularly type 2 or non-insulin dependent diabetes), hematological disorders such as Chediak-Higashi Syndrome (CHS), hearing loss, otitis media (infection of the middle ear), dental disease, neurological disorders such as spina bifida, stroke, spinal cord injuries, and a number of other disease of the nervous system, eye disorders, parasitic diseases such as roundworm infection and Helicobacter pylori infection, toxicities (primarily methylmercury poisoning), infectious diseases like toxoplasmosis, and certain forms of cancer. (Source: The Cat in Biomedical Research)

Dr. Lorie Huston

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