Leading Immunologist Argues Against Mice Models

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Stop the presses: What's this? A leading immunologist (at least, that's what they call him) at Stanford University (never heard of it) says the laboratory mouse can teach us only so much about why humans get sick. In the Dec. 19 edition of Immunity, Mark Davis writes, "We seem to be in a state of denial, where there is so much invested in the mouse model that it seems almost unthinkable to look elsewhere."

To which we say, "Duh." This blog could have told him that.

But it appears there's no dissuading Davis, the director of the Stanford Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection, who argues that immunologists should start weaning themselves off experimental rodents and instead turn to a broad, industrial-scale "systems biology" approach similar to the one that led to the decoding of the human genome. (Like that was some big achievement.)

As regular readers of this blog know, lab rodents have proven useful to researchers over the past several decades because they share many biological similarities with humans yet can be manipulated and genetically engineered (which humans can't). But Davis argues that while we've cured many infectious diseases, cancers and autoimmune conditions in mice, transferring that knowledge to humans has proven far more difficult, with many clinical trials ending in failure.

And then he has the temerity to write this: "Mice are lousy models for clinical studies."

Lousy?!? Lousy?!?

Oh, he's got his reasons: Rodents are separated from humans by some 65 million years of evolutionary biology; it takes 20 years for a person to reach sexual maturity but only a few months for a mouse; and the past century of breeding mice in labs has effectively made them a new kind of disease-free species, to the point that researchers now have to induce forms of human diseases in them. Blah, blah, blah.

In his essay, Davis writes, "Although the small academic labs as we know and love them are great for innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, some problems in biology, particularly those that involve a great deal of repetitive assays and data collection, are much better suited to a larger-scale organization and execution. The data are both more uniform and considerably cheaper."

So Davis advocates the creation of a national or international database to store information on blood and tissue samples, which would allow researchers to quickly and cheaply evaluate vast amounts of immunologic data from very large groups of people with a variety of different backgrounds. And, just as with the Human Genome Project, Davis believes such a large-scale approach would actually serve to reinvigorate smaller labs.

"We can't depend on the mouse for all the answers, because in some cases it's not giving us the right answers," Davis said in a release. "But think about what we can do with people. People come to hospitals, get vaccinations, give blood and tissue samples for routine lab tests and clinical trials. We're not learning nearly as much as we could from these samples. As with the recent history of human genetics, we could be much bolder."

Next week:Today in Mice looks for work!