Meet Dr Luke Dutton, the newest member of our stem cell research team. In collaboration with the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), Luke is working with our Head of Stem Cell Research, Dr Debbie Guest, on a new and exciting project which is the first of its kind in the world to help cats.

Building on techniques proven by our stem cell research team in dogs and horses, Luke is using adult feline cells to study hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a very common and severe disease of cats and humans. HCM affects about 1 in 7 cats and is often fatal. There are currently no treatments proven to stop or reverse it.

This project aims to produce a novel laboratory model to study this disease using adult feline fat cells which are turned into heart cells in the lab to help researchers study the disease and ultimately test the suitability of new drugs.

We asked Luke a bit more about the project:

What is HCM and how big a problem is it in cats? 

HCM causes the muscular walls of the heart to thicken, decreasing the heart’s efficiency. There are currently no treatments proven to stop or reverse the progression of the disease. Due to the lack of treatment options, many of the cats with HCM will go on to develop congestive heart failure (CHF).

Treatment for CHF is focussed on reducing the severity of clinical signs, and helping the heart cope under failing conditions. Once the heart disease progresses to a degree that medication for heart failure is no longer able to keep the clinical signs under control, the quality of life for the cat dramatically reduces. This can either be fatal, or impinge on quality of life to such an extent that owners feel obliged to euthanize their pet. HCM is a very common and severe disease of both cats and humans and affects about 15% of the cat population in the UK, which is over one million cats!

What does this project hope to achieve? 

The primary aim of the project is to produce a novel laboratory model of cat heart disease, which will then be used to study the disease and ultimately test the suitability of new drugs. This is a cell-based model, so it will avoid the use of experimental animals. We anticipate that this will lead to the acceleration of drug discovery and screening for treatment.

One of the issues with studying heart diseases at a cellular level is that heart muscle cells do not survive in a laboratory environment. In humans this has been overcome by turning ordinary skin cells into pluripotent stem cells (cells able to turn into any tissue in the body). These are termed induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs. It is possible to then generate heart muscle cells from these iPSCs, which last much longer in culture and are infinite in population. This is the basis of this project, where skin cells from cats affected and cats unaffected by genetic mutations causing HCM will be turned into iPSCs, which then lead as a route to make heart muscle cells. These can then be examined for response to drugs as a model of the disease.

How will your research help vets? 

By improving treatment options. Currently vets face a difficult and emotionally challenging situation when presented with a cat that has HCM, knowing that the disease is both severe and incurable. Therefore we are optimistic in providing a new disease model that will accelerate the drug discovery and screening process, which is currently one of the most time consuming and expensive facets of bringing new drugs to the market. In the future, we anticipate that our novel platform will see new treatments that vets can use to treat the underlying heart disease.

Could this research help humans with HCM too?

Yes. The translational benefits of this project are potentially very significant as this condition manifests in people in the same way as in cats. Around 1 in 500 people in the UK have HCM and should the therapies we hope to develop be effective in cats, this will set the stage for testing in human patients.

What triggered your interest in this particular area of science?

As a Veterinary Surgeon who worked in practice, I saw the daily trauma caused to owners by incurable diseases such as HCM in cats. It was frustrating to not have more treatment options available to me, especially knowing how severe and debilitating the disease can be. I entered into research to help develop new treatments, which could potentially impact on thousands if not millions of patients.  To be part of that process is very exciting and exhilarating.

How did this project come about?

The project came about as collaboration between the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and the AHT. Cardiologists at the RVC are world renowned for their research and expertise in feline heart disease. Researchers at the AHT are experts in stem cell biology and have experience of generating these difficult cells from veterinary species. Therefore it was an exciting prospect to bring the two together to develop this new disease model system.

What and where did you study before coming to the AHT?

I did my undergraduate degree in Veterinary Science at the University of Liverpool. After graduating I moved to the south coast where I worked as a first opinion small animal and farm vet for a year. I then moved to the RVC to complete my Master of Research degree in canine cardiac stem cell biology, before starting the PhD at the AHT and RVC.