Fuzzy Kittens, Fuzzier Science

Claims of hypoallergenic cats continue to go unchallenged by press

In October 2008, Mike Sela, a lifelong sufferer of cat allergies, discovered a company called Allerca Lifestyle Pets.

According to its website, Allerca sells “the world’s first scientifically proven hypoallergenic cats,” specially bred to exclude Fel-D-1, a gene that produces the protein that causes allergic reactions in humans. The site boasts a bevy of media links, including a Time magazine cover bearing the headline “GOD vs. SCIENCE,” which leads to a blurb listing the cats among Time’s picks for “Best Inventions of 2006.”

“Demand is high,” the blurb says. “There’s already a 15-month waiting period for the sniffle-proof kittens.”

Sela was excited by the laudatory coverage of Allerca’s claims. He and his wife had some extra money, and they thought a hypoallergenic cat would be the perfect Christmas gift for them and their young daughter, who also is allergic. “It seemed like a reputable, reasonable thing,” he said. “You Googled the thing, you got a bunch of articles about it.”

At the time, Allerca’s cats were selling for a steep $8,000, but Sela negotiated a half-price discount for a cat that had been returned (the company’s site currently lists them at $6,950). “I don’t think any cat is worth $4,000,” he said, “but this seemed like a magical opportunity, especially with parents trying to get something for kids. You never thought you could get a cat and this is your chance.”

Allerca’s sales rep—who identified himself as “Simon”— told Sela that the company was having problems processing credit card orders and that Sela would have to wire the money. It would be kept in a Swiss account, he said, where no one would have access to it until the cat had arrived and the refund period was over. The request was suspicious, Sela admits, but he had grown to trust Simon, so he wired the money. The cat did not arrive in time for Christmas. It hadn’t arrived a month later, either. Simon was kind and cordial whenever Sela called to complain, and always had an excuse for the delay. But Sela soon realized that “something might not be on the up and up.”

“So, I Googled [Allerca] again, this time appending ‘scam’ to my search,” he said. “Lo and behold, I found all these people.”

It turned out that a number of allergy-afflicted cat lovers had taken Allerca up on its claims and sent in a deposit on their cats. Their stories were all different, but they shared a common thread. Some were told they were too allergic for the cats (a baffling claim, given that the cats were marketed to customers with the most severe allergies). Some never got a cat at all, and if they got a refund, it took a long time. Some cats were the wrong color or weren’t fixed, as the company promised they would be. More importantly, some cats continued to induce allergic reactions in their owners.

Sela had never questioned Allerca’s central promise. Why should he? All of the articles that he’d seen had uncritically echoed the company’s claims. The blurb in Time, for instance, failed to mention that there was, and still is, no peer-reviewed study backing up the existence of hypoallergenic cats. “A San Diego company is breeding felines that are naturally hypoallergenic,” was all it said. Not “claims to be”… “is.”

Time didn’t respond to an e-mail asking for comment, but Rachel Pepling, who wrote a longer, freelance article about Allerca for National Geographic in June 2006, says that even after talking to a number of experts, it wasn’t obvious that the site was a scam. Nonetheless, her piece was almost as uncritical as the blurb in Time. “Allerca officials are closely guarding their scientific data and independent parties have yet to publicly verify the cats’ hypoallergenic status,” she reported.

“I was skeptical, because they said they had a cat, but they didn’t have a study,” Pepling said in a recent interview. “I talked to other genetic experts to try to see if this was even a plausible method. When nobody had figured out the role the protein actually played, I was like, ‘All right, this is suspicious,’” she said.

But no one said Allerca’s approach was impossible. An Allerca spokeswoman told Pepling that a peer-reviewed study was imminent. And Leslie Lyons, a feline geneticist at UC-Davis, said, essentially, “Why not?” The story was simply too good to pass up, so Pepling’s article was published with only minimal skepticism. What it failed to mention could fill a book.

The Allerca sales rep that Sela had talked to was Simon Brodie, the founder and owner of company. What Time, National Geographic, and other major outlets, including The New York Times, missed was that Brodie has no background in genetics—but he does have a well-recorded background in running scams. He was arrested in England, his native country, for selling shares in a non-existent hot-air balloon company. In the United States, he has left a wake of evictions, unpaid loans, and suits by unpaid employees. One judgment against him that stands out is by a company called Felix Pets, founded about a year before Allerca with the same goal of breeding hypoallergenic cats by eliminating the Fel-D-1 gene.

David Avner, one of the founding partners of Felix Pets, is a doctor with a background in allergies. He thought of the idea of knocking out the gene while he was doing research into ways to reduce indoor allergies. “Given some of the genetic engineering people are starting to use, and the fact that this allergen doesn’t serve any purpose to the cats, I thought we could just get rid of the allergen altogether,” Avner said.

Yet Felix Pets doesn’t have a waiting list or a price table on its website. That’s because in eight years Avner and his two partners haven’t been able to successfully create a cat that is truly hypoallergenic. News coverage of Allerca had given customers like Sela the impression that genetic engineering to be hypoallergenic should be “easy,” but the reality is anything but. “The idea of how to do it is very simple, but the actual genetics and the engineering and the cells are very technical and very difficult,” Avner said. “It sounds like you could do it in the afternoon, but when you try to do it in the lab it’s not easy.”

Early in the process, when Avner and his partners thought they would have a cat sooner, they put out a call for investors - which got picked up by a local paper. Simon Brodie saw the story and contacted them, Avner said, identifying himself as a money manager for a large fund. “He’s a very articulate, smooth-talking person whose demeanor instills confidence in people, and that’s why he’s good at doing what he does,” Avner said. Brodie learned what he could about the science and then disappeared. Allerca.com turned up a year later. Avner and his partners sued Brodie for breach of contract and theft of intellectual property, and the suit was settled out of court. That was the last Avner heard of Brodie, but Allerca’s website was never taken down.

Paradoxically, Pepling started out writing primarily about Avner’s company, Felix Pets, but when Allerca came out with a press release saying it had a cat, she switched gears, knowing that story would be easier to sell. Felix Pets appears to be an example of real science at work—eight years of lab work, no big announcements or press releases, and no cats—but it’s not appealing to news organizations, at least not yet. Allerca, on the other hand, was able to appear newsworthy with just a few unsupported claims.

Sela never got a cat or a refund, and he tried to organize a class-action lawsuit, which never came to fruition. But the media had wised up to the scam even before Sela was burned. In 2007, a reporter at The Scientist interviewed a number of experts that were dubious about Allerca’s claims, and concerned about its founder’s sketchy past. So did The San Diego Union-Tribune (which blamed uncritical media coverage for the company’s initial success) and The Boston Globe.

To date, there is no evidence that Allerca has produced a single hypoallergenic cat, although Leslie Lyons, the UC-Davis geneticist, stressed that she and other experts believe that doing so is scientifically possible. In 2009, the Union-Tribune reported that the company had moved from San Diego to Las Vegas and would stop taking orders at the end of the year, but its website is still live—and it still touts some scientific-looking documentation and an independent study attesting to the fact that its cats “are different from the standard cats in the [Fel-D-1] region of their genome. The site’s FAQ section claims the pets are 95 percent effective among customers “who are extremely allergic to cats.”

“It’s amazing that he’s continued to do this as long as he has,” Avner said. “Because it’s such a sensational story, he’ll get a lot of press from news outlets and TV shows that didn’t do their research.”

Pepling said she doesn’t regret that her story is still online. She hopes someone doing research and thinking about buying from Allerca will find something like The Scientist’s exposé as well as her article. But she and others clearly took Brodie’s bait back in 2006.

Just last week, Allerca turned up in a Montana health news site’s report on the hypoallergenic pet market - which shows the website is still being found and uncritically cited, five years after the suspicious nature of the company was publicly uncovered.

Cute animals, cutting-edge science, online entrepreneurship - the story had everything. Except credibility.

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Jonah Comstock is a freelance journalist, blogger and recent graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in Manhattan.