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Cat Allergy Breakthrough: A Cure May Soon Become a Reality

Update Date: Jul 25, 2013 06:53 PM EDT

A new study says people suffering from cat allergies may soon get some relief.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge said they've identified how a protein in cat dander triggers the immune system's adverse response, according to a new study. The research was published in The Journal of Immunology.

Feline allergies are generally caused by the animals' dander, or skin particles; researchers examined the proteins inside, the BBC reports. Alongside a common bacteria, the allergen ignites the immune system. Researchers have identified the "specific receptor interaction" underlying the process.

When protein Fel d 1, which is found in cats' dead skin cells, interacts with a common environmental bacterial toxin known as lipopolysaccharides (LPS), it activates an immune receptor called TLR 4. This triggers an allergic reaction and causes common symptoms like itchy eyes, coughing, sneezing and wheezing, scientists said.

"As drugs have already been developed to inhibit the receptor TLR4, we are hopeful that our research will lead to new and improved treatments for cat and possibly dog allergy sufferers," lead author Dr. Clare Bryant said in a press release.

TLR4 is also known to play a role in nickel and dust mite allergies.

"This is the first time we have discovered the process that leads to the allergic reaction. It opens up a whole new type of drug to treat it," says Bryant. Thanks to the new understanding, drugs "that are in clinical trials for other conditions, such as sepsis ... could potentially then be used in a different way to treat cat allergy and to prevent cat allergy," she notes. In the future, "with just a puff of an inhaler," cat allergy sufferers could be free to cuddle with new feline friends.

About 10 percent of people have pet allergies, and reactions to cats are twice as common as reactions to dogs. Cat allergies are especially pernicious because the proteins are small, light, and sticky. They float through the air and when they land on a surface-a piece of clothing for instance-they can be transferred to places that are cat-free. Symptoms include sneezing, watery eyes, stuffy nose, sore throat, hives, wheezing, and in severe cases, asthma.

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