Bred to be furry and allergy-free
Geneticists and allergists doubtful
Judy Smith swears that her cat, Kiki, is hypoallergenic. She spent about $7,000 to buy him. (Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff)
WESTWOOD -- He looks like a regular cat, white, furry, playful at times, and disinterested at others. But Judy Smith swears that her cat, Kiki, is different, and it is not just because she spent about $7,000 to buy him. Kiki, she says, is hypoallergenic, a cat that does not cause her to sniffle and sneeze and, for that, he is well worth the price tag.
"It is a lot of money," Smith conceded recently from her home in Westwood. "But for somebody who is a humongous cat lover, it's totally worth it."
According to the company, Allerca Lifestyle Pets, Kiki is among two-dozen hypoallergenic cats that have been sold and delivered to people across the United States and Canada. The cats, according to Allerca, have a naturally mutated gene and therefore do not produce the same concentration of the potent feline allergen Fel d 1.
But cat geneticists and allergists from Los Angeles to Boston are less convinced. They question whether Allerca has done what it says. They would like the company to release its scientific data, something that Allerca refuses to do, saying the information is proprietary.
Many former associates have raised doubts about the company, given the past of its founder, Simon Brodie, who has a history of failed ventures, a criminal conviction, and fraud allegations.
"I've had some hits, some misses," said Brodie, whose latest problems include a $285,000 federal tax lien placed against him last February by the Internal Revenue Service. He said he is challenging the tax lien and in general does not want to talk about the past.
But until scientists are sure that Brodie's latest assertions are true, few are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Scientists say they need to know more before they would recommend that anyone buy these cats.
"Why am I going to believe it until I see the data, the raw data?" said Dr. Andrew Saxon, an allergist and professor of medicine at UCLA. "People claim all sorts of things -- the moon is made of green cheese. This is just a business claim. A real company would show the data."
Cat allergens are among the most prevalent in the United States. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, 17 percent of people are allergic to cats. The main culprit, scientists say, is the protein Fel d 1, and Brodie is not the only person interested in creating cats without it.
In 2001, Dr. David Avner founded Transgenic Pets LLC with the hope of removing the Fel d 1 gene from cats. Brodie, a potential investor, spoke to Avner about the project. But Brodie never invested in the company and Avner, an emergency medicine physician in Denver, later sued, saying Brodie kept his company's confidential material.
The two settled in February 2005 with Brodie agreeing not to enter the genetically engineered hypoallergenic cat market until after May 31, 2006. Brodie said a scientist, whose name he said he cannot recall, told him that some cats had a naturally mutated Fel d 1 gene, which would not generate as much allergen. Brodie said another person, whose name he will not reveal, then gave him a few of these cats. Allerca says it bred these cats and ultimately produced kittens with a mutated Fel d 1 gene.
"The body does not see it as an allergen," Brodie explained by phone from Delaware, where he recently moved his company from California. "The body does not recognize it as an allergen. Even though it's the Fel d 1 protein, it's a different makeup of the protein."
Cat geneticists say this might be feasible, but they say it is also fairly unlikely. The fact that Brodie refuses to document the science, through an independent study or in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, leaves many skeptical.
And then there is the question of his past. In 1994, according to the English newspaper the Argus, Brodie was convicted in England of seven counts of false accounting in connection with the collapse of a hot air balloon company called Cloudhoppers. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Brodie said he served less than a year and later came to the United States.
In Delaware, in 1999, he incorporated Cerentis LLC, which among other things sold software training packages to people in England.
Peter Wood, 40, of Essex, England, told the Globe he purchased one of these packages for more than $50,000, expecting to be trained and then employed.
Wood was trained at a California company called Alphalogix in the fall of 1999. But Brodie "disappeared," Wood said, before the three-week course was finished, leaving him without the job he had been promised.
According to Los Angeles County court records, Brodie also stiffed Alphalogix, never paying $30,600 in training fees.
"He's an extremely accomplished con man," Wood said in a phone interview from England. "He's obviously very good at what we call smoke and mirrors. He portrays a real professional company. But there's no depth to it at all."
Brodie said he had never heard of a company called Alphalogix. And to the geneticists who want to review his data, he replied, "Geneticists are not our customers."
Smith is pleased with her purchase. She said she first heard about Allerca in a news story in early 2005, put down her money more than a year ago, and received Kiki in June.
Smith, 33, said she is very allergic to cats, but has had very few symptoms around Kiki.
Dr. Dale Umetsu, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School and an allergist and immunologist at Children's Hospital Boston, said it is possible that Brodie has delivered on his promise and created a hypoallergenic cat.
But Umetsu is skeptical. About a year ago, he contacted Allerca, asking if he could study its cats and perhaps publish an article about its work, he said.
Their answer, he said, was no.