The Allerca sales rep that Sela had talked to was Simon Brodie, the founder and owner of company. What Time, National Geographic, and other major outlets, including The New York Times, missed was that Brodie has no background in genetics—but he does have a well-recorded background in running scams. He was arrested in England, his native country, for selling shares in a non-existent hot-air balloon company. In the United States, he has left a wake of evictions, unpaid loans, and suits by unpaid employees. One judgment against him that stands out is by a company called Felix Pets, founded about a year before Allerca with the same goal of breeding hypoallergenic cats by eliminating the Fel-D-1 gene.
David Avner, one of the founding partners of Felix Pets, is a doctor with a background in allergies. He thought of the idea of knocking out the gene while he was doing research into ways to reduce indoor allergies. “Given some of the genetic engineering people are starting to use, and the fact that this allergen doesn’t serve any purpose to the cats, I thought we could just get rid of the allergen altogether,” Avner said.
Yet Felix Pets doesn’t have a waiting list or a price table on its website. That’s because in eight years Avner and his two partners haven’t been able to successfully create a cat that is truly hypoallergenic. News coverage of Allerca had given customers like Sela the impression that genetic engineering to be hypoallergenic should be “easy,” but the reality is anything but. “The idea of how to do it is very simple, but the actual genetics and the engineering and the cells are very technical and very difficult,” Avner said. “It sounds like you could do it in the afternoon, but when you try to do it in the lab it’s not easy.”
Early in the process, when Avner and his partners thought they would have a cat sooner, they put out a call for investors - which got picked up by a local paper. Simon Brodie saw the story and contacted them, Avner said, identifying himself as a money manager for a large fund. “He’s a very articulate, smooth-talking person whose demeanor instills confidence in people, and that’s why he’s good at doing what he does,” Avner said. Brodie learned what he could about the science and then disappeared. Allerca.com turned up a year later. Avner and his partners sued Brodie for breach of contract and theft of intellectual property, and the suit was settled out of court. That was the last Avner heard of Brodie, but Allerca’s website was never taken down.
Paradoxically, Pepling started out writing primarily about Avner’s company, Felix Pets, but when Allerca came out with a press release saying it had a cat, she switched gears, knowing that story would be easier to sell. Felix Pets appears to be an example of real science at work—eight years of lab work, no big announcements or press releases, and no cats—but it’s not appealing to news organizations, at least not yet. Allerca, on the other hand, was able to appear newsworthy with just a few unsupported claims.
Sela never got a cat or a refund, and he tried to organize a class-action lawsuit, which never came to fruition. But the media had wised up to the scam even before Sela was burned. In 2007, a reporter at The Scientist interviewed a number of experts that were dubious about Allerca’s claims, and concerned about its founder’s sketchy past. So did The San Diego Union-Tribune (which blamed uncritical media coverage for the company’s initial success) and The Boston Globe.
To date, there is no evidence that Allerca has produced a single hypoallergenic cat, although Leslie Lyons, the UC-Davis geneticist, stressed that she and other experts believe that doing so is scientifically possible. In 2009, the Union-Tribune reported that the company had moved from San Diego to Las Vegas and would stop taking orders at the end of the year, but its website is still live—and it still touts some scientific-looking documentation and an independent study attesting to the fact that its cats “are different from the standard cats in the [Fel-D-1] region of their genome. The site’s FAQ section claims the pets are 95 percent effective among customers “who are extremely allergic to cats.”
“It’s amazing that he’s continued to do this as long as he has,” Avner said. “Because it’s such a sensational story, he’ll get a lot of press from news outlets and TV shows that didn’t do their research.”