Mice Don’t Always Give Great Medical Advice

    In science, we are told that the killing of animals is a “necessary evil” in order to model the types of diseases that we are trying to cure. It’s true. Most of what we know about the human body, even basic things like blood flow, comes from studying animals. The polio vaccine, discovered by Jonas Salk, harvested this virus from animal brains, then tested it on monkeys. However, he didn’t receive the 1954 Physiology and Medicine Nobel Prize (although many people feel he should have). Instead, it went to three scientists that cultivated it in human skin-muscle tissue, making it capable for mass production without being extracted from animal brains. 

    Although much of what we learn in medical and pharmaceutical science comes from animal models, we can’t immediately translate our results to humans. For example, Ron Evans’s group at the Salk Institute famously discovered an “exercise pill” (AICAR) that improved the endurance of mice, but failed to ever work in humans.

    It’s also difficult to generate animal models of complex psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia. Researchers try to emulate schizophrenia in mice by giving them high doses of ketamine, an animal tranquilizer that doubles as a raver drug among humans. Another new schizophrenia model recently published in 2011 gives mice chronic doses of LSD. 

    Over the past few years, a technology has emerged that could help us learn more about schizophrenia. In 2007, Shinya Yamanaka’s group (Kyoto University, Japan) successfully made the first human pluripotent stem cells from human adult skin cells, and many scientists believe that he will receive the Nobel Prize for it. Utilizing this technology, “Rusty” Gage’s group (Brennand et al.) at the Salk Institute published the 2011 paper: “Modeling schizophrenia using human IPS cells.” Essentially, they took skin cells from schizophrenic patients, turned them into neurons, and compared them to neurons that were derived the same way from people without schizophrenia. Then they were treated with an antipsychotic to see what the effect would be. The major novelty was that the neurons came from the skin of a person with schizophrenia, instead of the brain of a mouse that had been frying on ketamine or LSD. 

    The San Diego community seems supportive of this type of research. Right by Gliderport stands the newly erected Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, a collaborative effort between UCSD and four other world class institutions. This center will focus on developing these types of technologies for translational medicine. Kudos.

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