Do Lab Mice Really Hold the Answer to All Questions Pertaining to Human Disease-or Should Scientists Be Looking Elsewhere?
Scientists have long used mice as models of human disease, and they are quick to boast about the pros of this model: it is relatively cheap, the animals are small and docile, and mouse studies are known to produce data for publication in a timely manner. But have those attributes of the mouse model blinded scientists to the drawbacks of relying so heavily on one model to study human disease? Does it even make sense to think studies in a rodent are applicable to humans? Those are the questions Daniel Engber, author of “Lab mice: Are they limiting our understanding of human disease?” addressed when researching the topic.
Daniel discussed the use of lab mice with many researchers who have worked extensively with the mouse model. The scientists candidly described their experiences, openly recognizing shortcomings of the mouse model. Clif Barry, chief of the Tuberculosis Research Section at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged that "the truth is that for some questions, mice give you a very nice and easy model system for understanding what's happening in humans, but mice are mice, and people are people. If we look to the mouse to model every aspect of the disease for man, and to model cures, we're just wasting our time."
Daniel learned that the mouse is not the “best” model for researchers trying to understand human disease, but that scientists are comfortable with this model and are stuck in a rut. And becoming too comfortable with the mouse model may have caused us to overlook drugs that could have been beneficial for humans, because they didn’t perform well in animal tests. In fact, Clif Barry believes that this method of drug testing “has cost us a new generation of medicines.”
All researchers work hard to find their niche in the scientific community. When they adopt the mouse model in their line of work, it helps define their identity as a scientist. It is very difficult for researchers who have invested the time and funds in a model to abandon it, and part of their identity, even if the model has flaws.
Scientists need to be more open minded about how they can test their hypotheses and perform their research. And they need to be realistic about applying data obtained from a mouse confined to a plastic cage in a laboratory environment to a human being. Just because scientists have always done so does not mean it is the best thing to do.
JoAnne Flynn, a microbiologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine believes that “by focusing only on the mouse, we're running a grave risk.” And I couldn’t agree more. As a scientist, I’ve always questioned the validity of using of mice, and all other animals for that matter, as models for human conditions. There are better, more human-relevant ways to conduct science, and there could be even more ways if scientists used their time and resources to develop them. There is a popular saying in science -- “garbage in, garbage out.” If we are not starting with an ideal model, it should come as no surprise that we won’t get good results. Why doesn’t the scientific community appreciate mice for what they really are, mice, and stop trying to make them something they are not, accurate models of human disease? In doing so, we will spare the lives of countless animals, not to mention the valuable time of scientists who are genuinely trying to improve human health. What do you think?
Learn more about Daniel Engber’s investigation of lab mice.
- Dr. Pam Osenskowski, Director of Science Programs