- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — They are being bred now by the millions, the mutants, created to carry the ghastliest of diseases for the benefit of the human race.

Since researchers published the mouse’s entire genetic makeup in map form three years ago, increasingly exotic rodents are being created with relative ease.

There’s the Schwarzenegger mouse — injected with muscle-building genes — and the marathon mouse, which never seems to tire. Researchers recently engineered some mice to be extremely addicted to nicotine, and others to be immune to scrapie, a close cousin to the brain-wasting mad cow disease.

And scientists are in hot pursuit of a Methuselah mouse, able to cheat death long after its natural brethren meet their maker.

Millions of these and other mutant mice are routinely created now, by injecting disease-causing genes or “knocking out” genes in mouse embryos. Their decreasing cost and increasing availability are helping researchers in pursuit of all manner of cures.

Top researchers in the Parkinson’s disease field, for example, were more excited by the dopamine-free knockout mouse that Duke University researchers invented than the actual study they unveiled this week, which suggests that the club drug Ecstasy reversed Parkinsonlike effects in these particular bio-engineered mice.

Researchers first genetically engineered a mouse in 1980. But until recently, such creations were mostly scientific novelties.

That changed drastically after President Clinton announced the mapping of the human genome in 2000. That’s because mice and men are nearly genetically identical, each possessing just a few hundred different genes out of a possible 25,000. Cancer in mice is a lot like human cancer, for instance. Mice have become powerful, living research tools.

The number of mutant research mice has grown so dramatically in recent years that companies are now profiting by housing and breeding scientists’ creations.

“Space is precious,” said Terrence Fisher of Charles River Laboratories in Wilmington, Mass., the nation’s largest mutant mouse repository. The publicly traded company breeds and cares for scientists’ creations and markets their inventions to other researchers, shipping an estimated 7 million mice worldwide annually.

“The novelty of being simply able to do this has worn off and clearly these mice are tools that are accelerating research,” Mr. Fisher said.

The repository with the country’s widest selection of mutant mice is the nonprofit Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, where most researchers who genetically engineer mice with government money are required to send some of their mice.

The lab boasts a collection of nearly 3,000 different mutant mice types; it shipped 2 million animals to U.S. researchers last year. The mice are in such great demand that Jackson opened another breeding facility in West Sacramento, Calif., four years ago. “We have always been the mouse place,” said Jackson spokeswoman Joyce Peterson.

The lab charges researchers $11 for mice that are particularly useful in diabetes work and as much as $200 each for “nude” mice, which lack immune systems. Its main focus is cancer research, but the mice business accounts for $60 million annually, Mr. Peterson said.

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