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Mice Offer Key to Understanding Humans and Our Ailments

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By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

Before we jump into this week’s article, there’s some important news to share: the health insurance marketplaces are open! The online marketplaces will be open for business from now until March 31, 2014. Georgia declined to create a state-run marketplace, so Georgians who need to buy health insurance will use the federally-run HealthCare.gov. Customers can choose between Bronze, Gold, Silver, and Platinum plans – young adults under the age of 30 can opt for catastrophic or “young invincible” coverage. Next week, I’ll share a guide to buying health insurance on the marketplace and deciding which plan is best suited for you and your family.

In August, researchers at Columbia University announced an exciting discovery about age-related memory loss. The researchers were searching for evidence that Alzheimer’s disease and the memory loss we associate with getting older are two different animals.

Studying donated human brains, researchers traced an increase in senior moments to a slowdown in production of a protein, named RbAp48. Their evidence was circumstantial; to test their theory, the team began studying mice. (Mice get forgetful as they age like we do.) Sure enough, augmenting the levels of RbAp48 in young and old mice affected their memory.

Lowering the protein’s production in young mice made them as forgetful as their elders, while increasing the level of RbAp48 in older mice made them as sharp as they were when young. It will take years of additional research to confirm. Still, the discovery is exciting and furthers the body of research into understanding and improving human memory.

In the last century, almost all major medical breakthroughs relied on the use of animal testing. The discovery of insulin in the 1920s made it possible to treat diabetes, sparing countless individuals from a certain and painful death. Vaccines for rabies, smallpox, polio, tetanus, and rubella were all developed using animals. Researchers are learning about human memory, cancer, how tumors develop, and Down syndrome – to name a few human health concerns.

Mice are the primary animals used in biomedical research. Dogs, cats, and non-human primates account for less than half a percent of total research animals. Mouse genes, anatomy and physiology are remarkably similar to ours, making them a great stand-in for humans. Inbred mice, quickly produced and cheap (they cost between two and three dollars per mouse) are fundamental to biomedical research. The mice offer predictability, since inbred mice carry the exact same genes.

Since the 1980s, researchers have used transgenic mice to advance narrow areas of study. Transgenic mice are produced in a lab where scientists add one specially requested specific gene or turn one gene off, and cost more than $3000 a mouse. Using transgenic mice allows researchers to study the manipulated genes function.

The Columbia University study’s insight into human memory would not have been possible without mice. Researchers have used animals to advance biomedical research since early times. Physician-scientist Galen used animals to better
understand anatomy, physiology, pathology and pharmacology in Greece in the 100s. In the 1200s, Arab physician Ibn Zuhr was the first to use animal trials, testing new surgical procedures on animals before using them on humans.

Our concept of animal rights and what constitutes humane treatment has changed over the centuries. Most countries have laws defining acceptable practices when using animals for research. For decades, the “Three Rs” have been the aspirational goal of animal testing. The campaign advocates:

  • Reduction: Reducing the number of animals used in scientific testing. The LD50 test is used to determine the lethal dose (the dose that kills 50 percent of the test subject) of a toxic substance. A standard LD50 test used between 60 and 200 animals, mostly rats and mice. Today, a modified version (the Limit Test) uses six to ten animals.
  • Refinement: Reducing distress in test animals. This can be accomplished by using methods that alleviate or diminish the amount of pain and suffering. This includes using properly trained staff and providing adequate veterinary care.
  • Replacement: Finding and using alternatives to animal test subjects. Accomplishing this goal requires improved storage, exchange and use of information about completed animal testing so scientists don’t unnecessarily repeat experiments. Animal testing can (in some cases, not all) be replaced by cultures of human vertebrate cells and tissues.

In the future, we may be able to abandon all animal testing, but today there is no acceptable replacement for all experiments. To outlaw the use of animals in biomedical research would drastically impede medical advancement. The advancements and discoveries we’ve made in the last hundred years are groundbreaking, drastically improving and saving human lives. Mice, once viewed only as dirty household pests, are a key to better understanding humans, our ailments, and our potential.

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