Venomous primate’s cat-like toxin a breakthrough for allergy researchers

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Updated

February 05, 2020 14:23:23

A Queensland researcher is hoping a study of the only venomous primate in the world will shed light on why people are allergic to cats.

Key points:

  • Dr Bryan Fry says slow lorises use allergy as a weapon and cats may do the same
  • Both animals share an almost identical protein that may have evolved separately
  • Dr Fry says the discovery will open up other areas of allergy research

An international team, led by University of Queensland associate professor Bryan Fry, has been studying slow lorises in a wildlife reserve in West Java in Indonesia.

The bite of the large-eyed, and incredibly cute, slow loris can induce an allergy-like reaction in humans.

“Slow lorises are really unique and really cool animals,” Dr Fry said.

“They are the only primate that actually has venom and they use it for defence against predators.

“When humans get bitten by slow lorises it really hurts, but it also triggers symptoms that are very consistent with an allergic reaction.

“It’s a case of using allergy as a weapon.”

He said studying the venom of the slow loris could have great application for working out why people are allergic to household pets.

“We analysed the DNA sequence of the protein in slow loris venom and, much to our surprise, it’s virtually identical to what cats have all over their fur that makes people allergic to them,” Dr Fry said.

“Cats secrete and coat themselves with this protein, and that’s what you react to if you’re allergic to them.

“Our theory is that since this protein is being used as a defensive weapon in slow lorises, it makes sense that cats may be using the allergen as a defensive weapon too.

“This ability to trigger allergy as a weapon mightn’t be something restricted to slow lorises, but may have separately evolved in cats at the same time.”

Dr Fry said it was a fascinating hypothesis that needed future research.

“This finding shows how inventive nature is when developing new toxic arsenals,” he said.

“The human allergy to cats is so prevalent that it would be a remarkable coincidence if this wasn’t an evolved defensive weapon, like the same protein used by slow lorises.

“Your pet cat wouldn’t know it, but it may have evolved a toxic defence to keep predators as far away from it as possible.”

Dr Fry said the team regarded this as another elegant example of evolution in action.

“It’s one of these things that shows evolution is just so much cooler than we thought it was,” he said.

He said it also opens up other areas of allergy research.

“What we want to do now is look at what variations there are in other animals and other types of allergies, for example like bees and ants,” Dr Fry said.

“This study is a great example of what makes science so wonderful, where every answer spawns several new and interesting questions.

“It’s a really novel area of research and one which I think we’ll be having lots of fun with.”

The research has been published in the science journal Toxins.

Topics:

animals,

animal-behaviour,

academic-research,

medical-research,

research-projects,

university-and-further-education,

brisbane-4000,

qld

First posted

February 05, 2020 13:36:53

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