The View from Mudsock Heights: Forget the Better Mousetrap -- We’re Building Better Mice

By Dennis Powell | Posted at 5:50 PM

It was a good year for mice. The headline in Medical Daily last week is typical: “Reproductive scientists create mice from 2 fathers.” It seems that through impressive scientific jiggery-pokery in the lab, researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center were able to extract a cell from each of two male mice, combine their DNA, put the results into a surrogate mouse mother, and produce a mouseling that was not genetically related to the mother at all. (What has this to do with cancer research? Good question.)

Thus, we may presume, was hope given to the uncounted childless mouse couples. Indeed, scientists seem to have devoted themselves to the improvement of mousekind. Just this year:

  • Researchers at the University of Colorado discovered an injection that “made their muscles grow back twice as big in a matter of days, creating mighty mice with bulky muscles that stayed big and strong for the rest of their lives,” Reuters reported last month.
  • At Harvard, Britain’s Guardian newspaper tells us, scientists “turned weak and feeble old mice into healthy animals by regenerating their aged bodies.” This was also reported last month.
  • German scientists in May reported that by effectively flipping a genetic switch in mice, the mice were saved from age-related memory loss.
  • In April, “Mice implanted with cancer cells and treated with the small molecule macroketone lived a full life without any cancer spread, compared with control animals, which all died of metastasis.” This happened at Weill Cornell Medical College.
  • Scientists in India announced in June that they have reversed the effects of autism in mice. The announcement was made in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Not to be outdone in the quest for better mice, “Deleting a certain gene in mice can make them smarter by unlocking a mysterious region of the brain considered to be relatively inflexible, scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have found.” So said Medical Daily in September.

If one didn’t know better, one might suppose that there’s a vast international effort to produce Mighty Mouse, though no one has yet come up with a rodent that can sing, “here I come to save the day.”

The scientists are very clever, though. As they produce new mice that will oneday rule us all, they claim that they are doing “medical research” that will oneday benefit “humans.”
Right.

We’re all the time hearing — the above are just a few examples — of medical breakthroughs that improve and enrich mousedom. When was the last time you heard of one of these miracles making its way to treatments useful to people?

Actually, the barriers to experimental findings making their way to real-world therapies are very, perhaps absurdly, high. Some of us may remember the short story and novel, Flowers for Algernon, or the movie of it, Charly, in which surgery made a mouse smarter so, right off the bat, the doctors performed the same surgery on a human. It doesn’t work that way, but what really happens can be as ridiculous in the other direction.

Before any treatment is approved for use on humans, it must go through a series of increasingly difficult tests, from initial peer-reviewed publication through limited then clinical testing, and finally, perhaps, approval. This makes sense, but we must remember that at each step there are scientists and others who are subject to the same jealousies and prejudices as everyone else. Science can also be very political. There is, too, the fact that every step is expensive. Scientists often spend a lot of time outside the lab, looking for someone who will pay for their research. Clinical trials alone can cost millions of dollars.

Then there is the Food and Drug Administration, which subjects potential treatments to what amounts to a full political examination. I personally know of one case in which a brilliant scientist, Dr. Michael Zasloff, then of the National Institutes of Health, discovered a family of highly effective, non-toxic, antimicrobial compounds to which bacteria could not become resistant. The discovery made the front page of the Washington Post and other publications. It was an incredible discovery.

He named the compounds “magainins.” You can look them up if you want, but the story will not increase your faith in the system. Let it suffice for me to say that though many people sought approval of products using magainins (especially diabetics who need the products for the treatment of ulcers that often lead to amputation of their feet), the FDA for no apparent reason rejected those products. I have read the transcripts of their hearings and found it all appalling.

But, hey, let’s not let that throw cold water on the important new research that is underway to make mice stronger and smarter and more long-lived. From a purely academic perspective, this is very interesting stuff. And, who knows, maybe oneday it will be good for something.

In the meantime, let us hope that the new supermice don’t get loose.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.


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