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Hypoallergenic cat company runs into trouble

Cat fight over hypoallergenic felines
Sneeze-free kitties bring out the claws in people.

By Marisa Taylor
December 4, 2006 Print Issue

A franchising scheme run by Simon Brodie, founder of hypoallergenic cat company Allerca, has run into trouble, raising doubts about his project to breed cats for people with allergies.

The frenzy began when Allerca president Steven May introduced hypoallergenic cat Joshua to American TV talk-show viewers in October. The cat even made TIME magazine’s Top 100 inventions list, helping to drive orders—at $3,950 a puss.

But then in November, California’s Department of Corporations served a desist and refrain order on Mr. Brodie, after he posted a notice on Allerca’s web site seeking potential investors. For $45,000, they supposedly got rights to “exclusive” territory. The problem was, the franchises hadn’t been registered properly, according to authorities. Mr. Brodie could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Brodie had bumped into the law before, and did time in the United Kingdom for false accounting. What’s more, Colorado physician David Avner says it was he, not Mr. Brodie, who came up with the sneeze-free cats—while working as a research assistant to Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, now president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Dr. Avner contends Mr. Brodie cribbed the idea while posing as a potential investor—and after having signed a non-disclosure agreement in 2004.

Dr. Avner filed an injunction through the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. “He just lifted everything,” he says. “As soon as the settlement expired [in 2006] he’s back doing the same thing.”

Dr. Avner also argues that you’d need to screen a lot of cats to find one with a mutant Fel D1 gene, the glycoprotein that elicits the human allergic reaction. “Where do you get millions of cats to screen?” Finding the right cat within a month or two of the injunction expiring just isn’t possible, he says. And while Allerca may have studied 10 allergic patients exposed to one of its cats, it has yet to publish anything on skin testing of allergic reactions.

Allerca, which has remained close-mouthed about the identities of its scientists, its backers, and even its location, says it created a proprietary test to screen for the gene. In an email, spokesperson Julie Chytrowsky said the mutation is generally accepted to be present in one in every 50,000 cats. “The number of cats tested to find the animals with the right mutation was considerably less than this number,” she wrote.

Ms. Chytrowsky also insisted that the franchise question will be sorted out soon enough. “[Allerca] was just asking for expressions of interest—and that they did,” she said. “As soon as the papers are filed, the franchises will begin.”

MTaylor@RedHerring.com

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