Breeding research mice is big business
One makes $500 million a year breeding lab animals.
BAR HARBOR, Maine (AP) -- When it comes to the price of mice, you pay extra for defects.
A mouse with arthritis runs close to $200; two pairs of epileptic mice can cost 10 times that. You want three blind mice? That'll run you about $250. And for your own custom mouse, with the genetic modification of your choosing, expect to pay as much as $100,000.
Always a mainstay of scientific research, mice have become a critical tool in the quest for new drugs and medical treatments because their genes are very similar to a person's.
With proper manipulation -- by man or nature -- a set of mouse genes can produce an animal with just about any human ailment, or a reasonable facsimile of it. Strains of mice that succumb to Alzheimer's disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and countless other conditions are being used to study both the illnesses themselves and potential treatments. As many as 25 million mice are now used in experiments each year.
Where do they come from?
Where else? Mouse farms.
There are many vendors: The Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit supplier in Bar Harbor, Maine, ships more than 2 million a year. Commercial breeder Charles River Laboratories of Wilmington, Mass., makes about $500 million annually selling and caring for lab animals, most of them mice.
Getting more complex
Yet the mouse business is a challenging one. What was once a relatively simple business of breeding and shipping animals has become an extremely challenging enterprise that requires cutting-edge technology and a mastery of difficult logistics.
"It's not just putting two animals together any more," said Terry Fisher, general manager for business development and surgical services at Charles River Laboratories.
Mice gained new significance not long after the completion of the human genome project in 2001. Scientists rushed to finish sequencing the mouse's DNA the following year, and when they put the two genetic codes side-by-side they found something they'd always suspected -- the genes of mice and humans are virtually identical. The obvious differences between us and them lie not in the genes themselves but in where, when and how those genes are activated.
When scientists began working with mice a century ago they didn't know anything about DNA, and had only the foggiest notion of genes. But mice were the obvious choice for breeding experiments. Small, docile and more than willing to reproduce, they were readily available from the collections of Victorian mouse fanciers who bred the animals for interesting coat colors and patterns. Many of today's most popular lab mouse strains are direct descendants of those original "fancy mice."
Over decades, researchers created inbred lines of lab mice by repeatedly mating siblings to one another until every member of the strain was virtually the same genetically. That standardization made it possible for a researcher in Japan to replicate the experiment of a colleague in California without having to worry about genetic variation affecting the result.
It also gave each strain a distinct character that made it preferable for certain experiments.
For much of the 20th century new strains of lab mice were created either by selective breeding or by chance.
Now researchers -- and increasingly biotechnology companies -- can create their own mutations, inserting or deleting genes at will.
Companies such as Deltagen of San Carlos, Calif., will create a "knockout" mouse that lacks a particular gene. PolyGene Transgenetics, a Swiss company, will insert genes whose output can be turned up and down as if they were on a biological dimmer switch. And the award for sheer weirdness goes to Xenogen, an Alameda, Calif., outfit that can hitch the gene of interest to one that codes for the protein that makes fireflies glow. The result: Whenever and wherever the gene being studied switches on inside the mouse, it glows.
Depending on the specific genetic manipulation, the cost to create a custom mouse is usually in the tens of thousands of dollars. Once the line has been established, individual animals can run into the hundreds.
"Not that much to pay if you want to see how a disease affects a mammal or how a drug is going to work," said Lee Silver, a Princeton University biologist who has worked with mice since 1978.
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