A vet whose research established diabetes mellitus (DM) in one-in-four UK cats is caused by a pituitary gland tumour has begun a collaboration with human medical experts that has potentially “huge” health implications.
RVC senior lecturer Stijn Niessen is convinced chemicals shed as dust from substances such as fire retardants in household furnishings and electrical equipment, and ingested by domestic cats, is causing the tumours.
Now, Dr Niessen is collaborating with Márta Korbonits, one of the world’s most pre-eminent experts on human acromegaly, to see if the same is true in human patients.
Prof Korbonits, professor of endocrinology and an expert in pituitary adenomas at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), and Dr Niessen have already begun work on analysing blood samples from a control group and acromegalic human patients.
Researchers hope to identify whether the same synthetic chemicals Dr Niessen has found in the blood of acromegalic house cats are also present in humans.
The incidence of DM in domestic cats has risen five-fold in the past 20 years. Dr Niessen began his research into the cause in 2003.
His main findings, a study of more than 1,200 cats, were published in the journal PLOS ONE in 2015.
Since the genetics of cats have not changed over 20 years, Dr Niessen suspected an environmental cause.
By chance, he found an article from human medicine, describing how scientists injected rats with oestrogen to deliberately cause pituitary tumours to study.
He looked at the chemical structure of oestrogen and compared it to items cats were exposed to in the typical home environment, and discovered synthetic chemicals in items such as furnishings and computers, which have very similar chemical structures.
Dr Niessen said: “Cats move all around the home, they lick stuff, they sniff at stuff and, crucially, cats groom themselves.
“They mop up all kinds of dust in the home and that dust collects everything that comes loose from furnishings and electrical equipment, so a cat is the perfect sentinel of exposure to anything in the household environment.”
When asked how big he thought the connection was for veterinary and human medicine, he replied: “I think this is huge.
“As a parent myself, I think it’s scary as I can compare the cat’s behaviour with my one-year-old, who is crawling around our house, catching the same dust.”