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Building a Better Mouse Study

Scientist recommends putting rodent lab subjects in varying conditions to get a better idea of how drug and medical products will perform in the real world.

Regular readers of this blog know that Today In Mice has long championed the individual rights of laboratory rodents.

And now, at last, our lonely but courageous crusade has been seized upon by real, honest-to-God academics.

Joseph Garner, a Purdue assistant professor of animal sciences, and professor Hanno Würbel of the Justus-Liebig University of Giessen in Germany have published a study in the journal Nature Methods that suggests scientists should change their long-held methods and test mice in deliberately varying environmental conditions. (Sure, take them skiing! Take them dancing! Get them out of that cage! We've been saying this for years.)

To back up a bit: Mice make great test subjects for potential treatments and drugs because they share so much genetically with humans. But scientists often use mice that are essentially genetically identical to attempt to limit environmental factors such as stress, diet and age from affecting the trial's outcome.

Garner and Würbel, however, believe that treating mice as the true idiosyncratic personalities they are would cut down on erroneous results and could significantly reduce the cost of drug development.

"In lab animals, we have this bizarre idea that we can control everything that happens," Garner was quoted in a press release announcing his study. "But we would never be able to do that with humans, and we wouldn't want to. You want to know if a drug is going to work in all people, so you test it on a wide range of different people. We should do the same thing with mice."

Garner points to odor as an example. The contrasting smells in different labs could have profound effects on the stress levels of mice — while unbeknownst to human researchers. A treatment could appear to work when, in actuality, the mice were responding to environmental clues and generating a false positive. And false positives can lead to failed trials and the loss of millions of dollars in funding.

"Drugs aren't expensive because they're costly to make," Garner said. "They're expensive because the company has to recoup the costs of the other drugs that have failed in human clinical trials. Numbers are hard to estimate, but for every drug that reaches the marketplace, well over 100 have been abandoned at some point in their development."