Hundreds of millions of stray cats and dogs are estimated to exist worldwide. Many end up in shelters where they are euthanized. One man is offering a $25 million prize to spur research that will keep fewer unwanted animals from being born.
Joe Federico has caught dozens of feral cats in his neighborhood. On a recent Thursday night, he trapped a black kitten – one of the few remaining he hadn’t yet captured.
Federico, a retiree, now volunteers with FixNation, a non-profit organization that trains people to catch feral cats and then spays or neuters the strays for free before releasing them back onto the streets.
By doing so, Federico says the organization provides a benefit for both homeowners and stray cats.
“[A breeding] population does two things: it becomes a nuisance and a problem for a lot of people, and it also is a hard time maintaining good health and well being of the cats themselves,” Federico said.
At FixNation’s Sun Valley office the next morning, the male kitten joined nearly a hundred other cats that were spayed or neutered.
Karn Myers, who co-founded FixNation five years ago, said that her organization has treated more than 100,000 cats but that much more needs to be done.
“There are over a million homeless cats in Los Angeles, and 100,000 is making a dent, “ Myers said. ”It’s not a million, but it’s definitely making a dent.”
The Michelson Prize
To make that dent, however, takes a significant amount of effort and resources, from training volunteers to performing surgery.
One organization is attempting to simplify the process, and it’s banking on a large cash prize to make it happen. The Found Animals Foundation is administering a $25 million prize that would be given to any person or group that can develop a single drug treatment that would permanently and safely sterilize both male and female cats and dogs.
Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of the Found Animals Foundation, said that the creation of such a treatment would help the mission of her organization, which is to reduce the number of euthanized animals.
“It will allow us to extend the reach of pet sterilization to those animals that aren’t currently being served and reduce those unwanted litters and, therefore, the number of animals coming into shelters and the number of animals dying in shelters,” Gilbreath said.
In order to win the prize, the product would need to be proven to be effective and likely to be accepted for regulatory approval. It would also have to have a reasonable production timeline and cost significantly less than the average spaying or neutering. Gilbreath said the current average cost of fixing a cat or dog in Los Angeles is $100.
Gilbreath said that the draw of the product is that it would greatly increase the ability of people to sterilize pets and stray animals worldwide.
“That is sort of the silver bullet. That would be the product that would make it as easy as possible to put the product in your backpack and go walk a neighborhood, whether that is in Los Angeles or whether that is in the developing world and to talk to people and meet their pets and administer the product and know that you have sterilized that pet,” Gilbreath said.
Showing the money
The $25 million Michelson Prize is named for retired spinal surgeon Gary Michelson, who in 2005, reached a $1.35 billion settlement with Medtronic in litigation over patents he held for innovations in spinal surgery.
Michelson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, began Found Animals and other philanthropic organizations using part of his personal wealth.
In addition to the prize money, Michelson set aside $50 million in grants to fund research towards the sterilization drug. Gilbreath said about $15 million of that money has been given to more than 30 entities.
For researchers working on the project, the grants have already been like a prize.
“These research grants are advancing basic reproductive biology towards this goal in dogs and cats, and there’s no other mechanism for that right now,” said Scott Struthers, president and chief scientific officer of Crinetics Pharmaceuticals.
Crinetics Pharmaceuticals has received two Michelson Grants. Officials with the San Diego-based company said that the money — which has provided about a third of its funding — came at a crucial time.
“We started this company probably at the beginning of the recession, so it was a really terrible time in terms of funding science, and NIH budgets were really low, and venture capital funding was really low,” said Steve Betz, vice president of biology for Crinetics Pharmaceuticals.
Is it possible?
The likelihood of developing a single treatment that would work for differing genders and species may seem to many to be too much to hope for, but researchers believe it is attainable.
Struthers said that his team has created a protein that should destroy cells in the brain that make gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which is essential for reproduction in all animals.
“Dogs and cats and people and rats — we’re all pretty much the same in terms of how our reproductive system is controlled,” Struthers said. “Similarly in males and females, we’re pretty much the same in how reproductive system is controlled at the level of the brain and pituitary gland. It’s only when it gets to the gonads that it’s different.”
The protein treatment is about to begin testing in rats. Struthers stressed that the process for developing drugs is iterative and that many rounds of testing will likely be necessary before a viable product is made.
However, he said he believes his company will be ready to begin testing a product in dogs within a few years. That would put Crinetics Pharmaceuticals in good position to win the prize.
“I think we’re certainly in the hunt,” Struthers said.
Betz said that the money isn’t something they count on but that it would provide great capital for the company.
“We funded this company for four or five years now on about five million dollars, so that infusion of money would be a tremendous game changer for us,” Betz said.
In exchange for winning the $25 million prize, Found Animals would retain the rights to the drug and would take it through the commercialization process. Gilbreath said that it’s to guarantee that the treatment remains at a low cost.
“We want to make sure that it gets priced to have an impact, not priced to be profit maximizing,” she said.
Karn Myers of FixNation said she would welcome any effective solution to make sterilizing pets easier.
“I can’t wait until the day – whether it’s a chemical sterilization or we have fixed them all — there’s more of a demand than a supply, and all of them have a wonderful, loving home, [my husband] and I can go to Tahiti and focus on something else,” Myers said.