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In 2000 creation of genetically modified white rabbit "Alba" captured headlines around the world. Today Dr. Poeschla announced that his research team had used genetic technology to create a green-glowing cat to assist in the eradication of feline HIV.

Genetic Engineering Pioneered by the Creation of Green Glowing Rabbits

In 2000 the French geneticist Louis-Marie Houdebine captured headlines around the world with the creation of "Alba," a genetically modified white rabbit who had been given genes from a jellyfish that caused him to glow eerily in the dark.

Alba was created as a "work of art" inspired by contemporary artist Eduardo Kac, and forced to live in confinement for fear he would escape, breed with other rabbits, and create a race of green-glowing night-moving super-rabbits that could upset the balance of nature. Alba died in 2002.

More recently, Dr. Eric Poeschla of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota announced that his research team had used the same genetic technology to create a green-glowing cat to assist in the eradication of feline HIV. Dr. Poeschla and colleagues took feline oocytes, or unfertilized eggs, and insert a gene from monkeys that would give the cat resistance against the feline AIDS virus. They also insert genes from jellyfish that allow the cat to glow green like a night light in the dark.

The hope of the researchers is that when the monkey genes are activated to fight the virus, the jellyfish genes will glow, telling researchers which parts of the cat's body are affected by the infection.

The Worldwide Epidemic of Feline HIV

Feline HIV (actually "FIV," since it is a feline virus, not a human virus) is a viral disease in cats that has effects similar to the AIDS virus in humans. Feline HIV can be transferred from cat to cat through blood-to-blood contact and nasal secretions. It can be passed from an infected mother cat to her unborn offspring. (A less severe infection, known as FeLV, is transmitted through sexual intercourse among cats and when they sleep together.) Humans are immune to feline HIV, and cats are immune to human immunodeficiency virus.

Like the human immunodeficiency virus, feline HIV can attach itself to the white blood cells known as macrophages, to another group of white blood cells known as T-cells, and to certain cells in the brain and spinal cord. As in humans, there is an initial flu-like illness shortly after infection, and then a period of recovery, although the disease-period is months or more often years in humans is just weeks or more often months in cats.

When the infected cat's immune system generates more white blood cells to respond to an infection, it creates more cells to be infected by the virus. The cat experiences bouts of open sores, diarrhea, and dehydration. Eventually the immune system stops producing defensive cells, and the cat either succumbs to infection or it is put down.

There are nearly 500,000,000 feral or "wild" cats in the world. Many of them, about 2 to 3 percent in Europe and the United States, are infected with the feline immunodeficiency virus. When these cats come in contact with cats who are pets, they can transmit the disease, which quickly spreads to other cats in the household or cats in neighboring households.

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  • Elder JH, Lin YC, Fink E, Grant CK. Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) as a model for study of lentivirus infections: parallels with HIV. Curr HIV Res. 2010 Jan, 8(1):73-80. Review.