Pawsperity is developing fecal tests to make disease detection less invasive, faster, cheaper and easier. Says RAPS CEO: “If there’s one thing we have plenty of, it’s cat turd!”
A partnership between RAPS and a Vancouver-based biotech startup could make it less invasive, faster, cheaper and easier for veterinarians and pet parents to identify serious health issues in animals.
What is Pawsperity Biotechnologies Inc.?
Pawsperity Biotechnologies Inc. was founded in 2018 and very shortly after connected with the RAPS Cat Sanctuary. The company is developing diagnostics that use DNA sequencing to characterize the “gut microbiome” – the hundreds of thousands of bacteria and parasites that normally live in the digestive track. Pawsperity data scientists then use artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to comb through gigabytes of DNA data, as well as lifestyle, diet and medical history data, to see if the microbiome of cats with a certain disease is different from that of healthy cats.
The plan is to develop tests that identify medical conditions with nothing more than a fecal sample – reducing or eliminating the need for sedation, needles, vet hospital visits and the range of stressful things that can surround medical testing.
The RAPS Cat Sanctuary, home to hundreds of cats, is an ideal place for the scientists to do their research, says Dr. Karen Lam Ph.D., cofounder and CEO of Pawsperity. “The use of AI and lots of data allow us to identify unique patterns or ‘signatures’ of disease and develop more accurate diagnostics. One of the reasons that we wanted to collect samples from RAPS is because AI algorithms are improved by learning from as many cat samples as possible,” Lam says. “Also, we know the environment affects our bodies, so factors like diet can change the microbes that live in our gut. It was important to have a group of cats that had shared diets and living environment like the Sanctuary and compare that to cats from different environments.”
The Cutting-Edge Research
Of the hundreds of cats living at the RAPS Cat Sanctuary, 40 have been part of a study on feline diabetes so far. (They don’t know they’re part of the study. Sanctuary staff collect their poop, label it and give it to scientists. Cats are segregated for a few hours so the sample can be connected to the specific cat.) About 110 additional cats in the study came through a veterinary teaching hospital in Boston, as well as from pet guardians in Metro Vancouver. One of the benefits the RAPS Cat Sanctuary offers is a database that records the age, health conditions, medications and other lifestyle factors of each individual cat, which are all data that Pawsperity scientists feed into their AI engine for analysis.
The geographic diversity, as well as the fact that some cats live in a communal sanctuary while others live in homes alone or with one or two other animals, is beneficial.
“If we find a signature for diabetes, it should be universal,” Lam says. “It should apply to cats in Boston or in Vancouver, and it should apply to cats that live in a sanctuary or in a house. The signatures that we found from our study were consistent between the different groups of cats, giving us confidence that we found the basis of a diagnostic test.”
That means, the team hopes, that they could have a diabetes test ready to market within a year or so. After that, if all goes well, a test for kidney disease could be another year off. After that, the possibilities are endless. Incredibly – even to Lam – is the possibility that a relatively simple fecal sample, analyzed once, could provide insights into a multitude of conditions, from obesity to intestinal disease to heart disease.
Not only could it make testing faster, easier and cheaper, it could eliminate the thing that makes animals (and their people) most agitated – visits to the vet.
Bridging the Gap for Our Animals
“Often, we have to take our sick pet to the vet and a lot of tests are done to identify the issue – blood samples, urine samples, ultrasounds, X-rays,” says Lam. “First of all, this can be very expensive. Second, it can be quite invasive and very traumatizing for the pet and therefore for the pet owners – and frustrating for vets as well. Third, I think a lot of pet owners come out of that process and they don’t actually get the definitive diagnosis that they hope to get. We are trying to improve on all these pain points.”
Using biotechnology and artificial intelligence, Pawsperity hopes to develop tests that let the pets stay home while their people drop off or mail samples to the lab. The amount of unnecessary testing this could eliminate would be enormous.
This sort of science is not new in human medicine. Veterinary innovations tend to be a decade or two behind, Lam says. An example is hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a modality that has been used in human medicine for decades but is only now evolving into veterinarian uses. RAPS Animal Hospital is the only facility in Canada offering hyperbaric therapy for pets.
“RAPS is doing pioneering work in bringing advanced technologies into its care realm,” says Lam. “Nobody else is doing it. It’s super-innovative. We would love to have further discussions with RAPS veterinarians about conditions they encounter the most, or that they have problems diagnosing, to see where we can bring the most value.”The Pawsperity team has extensive expertise in human medical research that they are bringing to animal health. Lam has a Ph.D. in medical genetics and others have advanced degrees and professional experience in pathology, data science, bioinformatics, genomics technologies, and a range of other applicable (if baffling to the layperson!) fields.
A Rewarding Partnership
The RAPS team is thrilled to be working with Pawsperity.
“Our first priority is always saving and improving the lives of animals,” says Eyal Lichtmann, CEO of RAPS. “This has always meant hands-on, direct service to animals and their people. Now, with this scientific partnership, we can add to the well-being of animals worldwide through innovations that Pawsperity is developing. We couldn’t be more excited to be a part of this.”
The project doesn’t take a great deal of work on RAPS’ part, he said.
“The team at the Sanctuary have to put individual cats in a separate room for a while until they produce the specimen,” Lichtmann says. “But that’s the beauty: If there’s one thing we have plenty of, it’s cat turd. Putting this to use in advancing veterinary science makes cleaning litter boxes a public service that can change lives for decades to come!”