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Breakthrough in fatal cat disease hints at coronavirus treatment

Findings in clinical trial for feline infectious peritonitis offer first real hope for treatment.

A new clinical trial funded in part by the Morris Animal Foundation has resulted in a critical veterinary breakthrough: Cats with feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) went into remission following treatment with a novel antiviral drug.

This fatal viral disease previously had no effective treatment or cure. Researchers from Kansas State University and the University of California-Davis published their study results in the Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery.

The Morris Animal Foundation launched its Feline Infectious Peritonitis Initiative in 2015 as one of its animal health initiatives and has dedicated more than $1 million to improve diagnostics for and treatments of this fatal disease. The foundation said it is committed to saving cats from FIP by funding a cluster of studies with the potential to help animal health scientists better understand, treat and even develop cures for the disease.

One of these studies, launched in March 2016 by Dr. Yunjeong Kim at Kansas State University and Dr. Niels Pedersen at the University of California-Davis, was a small clinical trial to investigate whether a novel antiviral drug could cure or greatly extend the life span and quality of life for cats with FIP.

"This research is the first attempt to use modern antiviral strategies to cure a fatal, systemic viral disease of any veterinary species," Pedersen said. "Our task was to identify the best candidates for antiviral treatment and the best dose and duration of treatment. Saving or improving the lives of even a few cats is a huge win for FIP research."

The team conducted a clinical trial with 20 client-owned cats that presented with various forms and stages of FIP and treated the cats with the antiviral drug. At the time of publication, seven cats were still in disease remission -- a positive step forward for a historically untreatable disease.

"We found that most cats, except for those with neurological disease, can be put into clinical remission quickly with antiviral treatment, but achieving long-term remission is challenging with chronic cases. These findings give us more insight into FIP pathogenesis and also underscores the importance of early diagnosis and early treatment" Kim said.

"Dr. Kim and I have been collaborating for over two years on an antiviral drug that proved highly active against the FIP virus in tissue culture and in a mouse model. The positive results of these studies convinced us to test the drug against naturally occurring FIP in cats," Pedersen said.

FIP is caused by a mutated coronavirus and targets kittens and young cats under two years of age. At highest risk are cats that live in close proximity to each other, such as in shelters, where FIP is 5-10 times more prevalent. FIP is challenging to diagnose because early symptoms can resemble other diseases. While there are supportive treatments if caught early, FIP is 100% fatal.

The virus that causes FIP also is similar to the coronaviruses responsible for Middle East respiratory syndrome and severe acute respiratory syndrome -- often fatal diseases in humans -- so research on coronaviruses to advance feline health may have the added benefit of helping people, too.

The drug needs to be commercialized, which is a complex process that involves identifying companies potentially interested in taking a drug through Food & Drug Administration approval and licensing, the Morris Foundation said. This task could take several years before the drug is approved and made available for use by licensed veterinarians.

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