This might come as a disappointment to animal hoarders, but well adjusted pet owners will be happy to learn that a local scientist's research could slow pet overpopulation.
William Ja, a Scripps Institute researcher who has a doctorate in chemistry, is working to streamline a cell-level cancer treatment. If he does this, the method could be used to sterilize dogs and cats without surgery -- and even make cancer research easier.
Ja originally got started on this project in 2010, after receiving a $260,000 grant from the Found Animal Foundation. Since 2008, the same foundation has offered a $25 million prize to whomever discovers a way to sterilize pets without surgery. Almost 400,000 stray animals are euthanized in the U.S. yearly.
Ja got the Foundation's grant, he says, with this basic pitch: Could a guiding principle of contemporary cancer research be used to spay and neuter animals outside of the O.R?
Ja's idea: using immunotoxins as sterilants.
Immunotoxins are basically strands of protein, which have been engineered to have a medicinal molecule attached to them. Think of immunotoxins as a combination of protein and a chemotherapy chemical, or a protein attached to a radioactive particle used in cancer treatment.
But these combos are engineered very carefully: The proteins are attractive only to sick cells, so when the poison or particle gets taken in by one of these cells, it does not hurt healthy cells.
What Ja wants to know: Could a birth control chemical-protein combo -- modeled after immunotoxins -- work on animals' reproductive cells?
"We thought it would be useful if we could find similar cell targets in dogs and cats and animals, and see if they would cause sterility," he says.
Though Ja is not at the point in his research where he would test that specific hypothesis, he is actively trying to figure out ways to make immunotoxin production easier.
This would allow scientists to apply these principles to animals at a lower cost.
If Ja comes up with a better way to produce immunotoxins, it could also lower the cost and difficulty of a lot of cancer research.
"It's important to say that we haven't discovered anything new," Ja says. "Everything we've developed is out of pieces of literature that we did research on. We looked in journals, put a few things together. But our basic idea is something called a peptide Velcro. It's basically these two peptides, these two protein domains, that stick together, like Velcro."
If this approach works, Ja said, his lab wants to share the technology with other researchers.
Brian Brewer, spokesman for the Cancer Research Center, says that immunotoxins hold great promise for cancer research. Any way of making it easier to produce them, then, could be watershed.
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"They deliver a payload to the cancer cell," he says. "So it's a great hybrid approach."