FIP Mutation Discovered

Published July 2013

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Gary Whittaker
Gary Whittaker, PhD

In a dramatic breakthrough in the fight against FIP, a research team led by Gary Whittaker PhD, Professor of Virology at Cornell University has identified the genetic mutation that changes the ubiquitous coronavirus in cats into the fatal disease, Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP).

FIP develops when the feline enteric coronavirus (FECV), a common benign intestinal virus in cats, mutates into the malignant FIP virus. FIP is a disease of the intestinal tract that affects domestic cats and wild cats, big and small, around the world. FIP is often difficult to diagnose, has no treatment and is always fatal.

The Common Coronavirus

In 1963 the the FIP virus was first identified by a veterinarian at Cornell, at which time it was incorrectly thought to be an infectious virus. Eventually it was discovered that the FIP virus mutates from the common coronavirus. The coronavirus is very common ┬áin cats—up to 40% in one or two-cat households, to as much as 100% in shelters, feral colonies, and homes with a large number of cats such as a breeding cattery. The coronavirus is transmitted via contact with fecal matter, so is often passed between cats that share a litterbox. The virus is picked up on the feet and the cat ingests it when self-grooming.

Coronavirus Mutates To FIP

When the coronavirus mutates to FIP, the FIP cell infiltrates white blood cells, enabling it to travel through the body at a rapid rate and inhibits the cat's ability to fight the virus. FIP kills most cats within weeks. Kittens are particularly vulnerable, especially in shelters and catteries.

Difficult To Diagnose Or Treat

Current tests cannot distinguish between the common coronavirus and the killer FIP virus. There is no effective vaccine or therapy for FIP. Scientists have spent more than 30 years searching for the FIP mutation in the hope that progress could be made in developing a treatment.

The Breakthrough

Dr. Whittaker and his team gathered the world’s largest collection of coronavirus and FIP virus samples donated from pet owners, veterinarians and Cornell’s pathology vault. By comparing the DNA from coronavirus to the FIP virus samples, they were able to pinpoint the difference in the DNA and isolate the specific mutation for FIP.

The actual article can be found at http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/19/7/12-1094_article.htm

Future Goals

Dr. Whittaker is confident that with the FIP mutation now identified, future research may lead to an effective treatment and possibly a vaccine to combat FIP in cats. He also believes that this has implications not just for cats, but also for humans and ferrets, which can be susceptible to coronaviruses as well.

The research was funded by Cornell’s Feline Health Center, the Winn Feline Foundation and the Morris Animal Foundation.

For more information about this new discovery, read the Cornell University article.

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