The Colgate Scene
January 2002

People on the go
Nothing to sneeze at

David and Jackie Rejman Avner are working on a solution for cat lovers with severe allergies. Their company, Transgenic Pets, is developing what is believed would be the first use of genetic engineering to develop pets with a new trait: allergen-free cats.

The Avners, who are 1991 classmates, both suffer from allergies, but they, and their three-year-old daughter Hannah, would love to adopt a cat. And David, who's a resident in emergency room medicine in Syracuse, N.Y., has a professional perspective as well. "Those experiencing severe allergic reactions, where their airways shut down, are among the more nerve-wracking patients to treat," he says.

The idea germinated before medical school, when David worked on a research team that tried to find ways of reducing exposure to cat allergen. The team concluded that there is no good way to remove the allergen from cats' skin or from indoor environments. "It's such a small protein, and so sticky, it coats everything," David says. Aside from shots and medications, doctors can only recommend avoidance for those who sneeze and wheeze around felines.

"At about that time, Dolly [the first cloned sheep] was created, and people were really making strides forward with genetics -- removing genes, altering genes, etc.," says David. "It occurred to me that we could use this technology to remove the gene that makes the protein in the cat that people are allergic to."

He filed for a patent in 1995, which was right in character: "Ever since I met him, David has always thrown out ideas for inventions," Jackie says. After filing, they formed the company. David serves as president, handling the science side, and as vice president Jackie takes care of the home office, media relations and their website (www.transgenicpets. com).

The Avners took on two business partners, put together a business plan and began looking for researchers. With a single phone call, Dr. Jerry Yang of the University of Connecticut, whose team created Amy, the first U.S. calf cloned from an adult farm animal, came on board. Work has been underway for over a year. "I think what lit the spark for Jerry," David says, "is that it's an application of biotechnology that people can relate to."

They're banking on the belief that the allergen protein doesn't seem to serve a biological function.

"The protein has been highly studied," notes Jackie, "and we haven't come across any credible scientist who suggests that it's going to hurt the cat [to remove the gene]." The process has been compared to a sped-up version of selective breeding.

Once enough allergen-free cats are produced in the lab, the Avners' company will breed the cats and sell them through licensed retailers. They project they will have cats available for sale by 2003. To protect their investment, the Avners will have the cats neutered before selling them, eventually for between $750 and $1,000 each.

The Avners' current focus is on raising $2 million in investment capital and looking for partnerships with genetics and pharmaceutical companies. They created an international buzz last June when they made a public presentation to a group of investors in Albany. That morning an article about Transgenic Pets ran in the New York Times business section. "By the time we drove home, there were a dozen calls from newspapers around the world on our answering machine," says Jackie. "The exciting thing for us was that reactions were overwhelmingly positive."

Though there's much work to be done, David says, "It's fun to see it coming to life." RAC

The soprano

Julia Fuller Fallon '85 admitted to a slight case of nerves when she returned to the chapel stage where she had performed so often as an undergraduate.

"Singing for my former mentors, Neva Pilgrim and Marietta Cheng, made me a little nervous and it was charged with memories of doing so many things here. I didn't factor that in."

Performing works by Handel, Schumann and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Fallon appeared as part of the music department's noontime concert series and her recital was titled "Re-establishing a Presence."

"It was beautiful, artistic singing with real communication between artists and audience," says Artist-in-Residence Pilgrim. "I was so proud to see how Julia has grown and matured as an artist. It was clear that she and her wonderful accompanist Jane Watwood Gibbs were enjoying making music together. As a result their performance was spontaneous -- something we all hope to achieve in a concert."

Fallon, who lives in Birmingham, AL with her husband Mike and their two-year-old son Sam, received her masters at Yale and for 10 years "sang a lot of small regional opera. I've been in every Shriners Center and small hall in Connecticut," says Fallon.

The soprano continues to perform "lots of wonderful church jobs and children's opera," but admits since the birth of her son she has become "a bit of a homebody."

Pianist Gibbs, who with Fallon conducted a master class in voice for students the day before the recital, said of the singer, "Julia has combination of brains, beauty and natural musicality." Same as it ever was. JH

Credit: Pastel sketch by Shirley Shepard
For the defense

Defense attorney Michael Marinaccio '73 tried an unusual case before Judge Stephen Barrett '68. Both are shown here in a sketch made during opening arguments.

It was alleged that Pedro Garcia and his wife kidnapped a 12-year-old girl and held her against her will for more than a year, then took her to Puerto Rico. Marinaccio argued that the girl had actually run away from a troubled home life and that the Garcias took her in and then transported her to the home of her maternal grandmother.

The defense was weakened, however, when the couple absconded on the first day of jury selection. The trial proceeded with the Garcias at large. "It makes it more difficult to mount a Good Samaritan defense when the defendants have taken off," says Marinaccio.

The second unusual aspect of the New York City case, according to the lawyer, was the fact that the girl checked herself into a hospital in the midst of the proceedings. She did return to give two days of testimony, concluding on September 10.

"Amazingly enough, though we lost four days because of the September 11 attack, we did not lose a single juror in the case," says Marinaccio. All 12, with five alternates, were on hand when the six-week-long case resumed. They returned a guilty verdict while the Garcias remained at large.

Judge Barrett, who sits on the Supreme Court of New York, refused to sentence the Garcias in absentia. They were eventually located, and an extradition issue followed, which may or may not affect sentencing again.

"For the first ten years Michael appeared before me, I didn't know he was a Colgate guy. I think we realized it during the trial before this one," says Judge Barrett. "Michael is a first-rate lawyer and his firm is tops."

Hillard Wiese '68 works with Judge Barrett as a confidential law secretary. JH

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