Mouse Stand-ins Leading The Way Towards Cures, Treatment

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Lab mouse (Rick Eh/flickr)

A mouse in a lab is nothing new. But what if that mouse had a duplicate immune system of the researcher working on it? Or what if a mouse could carry the exact disease that a patient was suffering from?

The latest research in autoimmune disease and cancer treatment is doing just that: using mice as stand-ins to study exactly how an individual’s cells work, and how and why they respond to certain medicine. They are now being called mouse avatars, and they are the future of medical technology.

Dr. Megan Sykes of Columbia University has led the research initiative to use mice to replicate individuals' immune systems, in order to see how autoimmune diseases develop. Dr. Sykes named her own immune system replica mouse "Mini-Me."

"There are different types of what we call 'humanized mice,'" says Dr. Sykes. Some researchers use mice to grow human tumors, in order to test different treatments, and determine which one is the most effective on a particular cancer. But what Dr. Sykes and her team have done is create from scratch a human immune system in mice, in order to study an autoimmune disease: Type 1 Diabetes. 

"The problem is, when you have a patient who has an immunological disease," Dr. Skyes says, "you don't know what's cause and effect." Often the patient has had the disease for some time, and has undergone several treatments, so it is not clear what is driving the illness. "What we're able to do with these mice is go back to the beginning." By recreating the immune system from scratch, the researchers are able to determine what is fundamentally different about that immune system, before the disease even develops. 

This research has a lot of therapeutic possibilities. While it would be very harmful for a patient to be experimented upon with a number of different drugs and therapies, a mouse with an identical immune system can provide a guinea pig for the treatments. Those that go well can then be used on the patient themselves. But Dr. Sykes and her team are even thinking beyond that. The ultimate goal would be to find a way of using the mice to produce the human immune cells, and manipulate them in a way that they could be given back to the patient. 

Dr. Paul Haluska, of the Mayo Clinic, is also using mouse avatars — in this case, to develop therapies for ovarian cancer patients. Dr. Haluska says the avatars could change the way drugs are tested by allowing the researchers to determine which mice are responding to the drugs and which are not. "We can do a hundred avatar trial with the new drug, and find out what the characteristics are of those responders, and then when we actually go to the clinical trial, look for those characteristics molecularly with the patients."


Dr. Paul Haluska and Dr. Megan Sykes

Produced by:

Maggie Penman

Comments [6]

As someone who is battling ovarian cancer, I was glued to the radio as this story unfolded. The current state of treatment is very hit or miss. I have had five different chemos. Some of them worked better than others but I can attest to the devastation when one finds out that the poison one has had infused into their bodies for several months has not worked and the disease has progressed. I will be contacting Dr. Huluska. Hope is everything.

Sep. 28 2012 06:48 PM

Instead of starting at a stem cell perhaps Dr. Sykes may want to start with the idea that all creatures are sentient beings capable of feeling pain and fear. Did you ever stop to consider that perhaps we were just not meant to live that long? I was honestly insulted by her Pollyanna enthusiasm in talking about "her" mice. The same mice which will die when she is done with them. In the process of overpopulating this earth we have succeeded in destroying it in the process. There are so many things wrong with testing on animals who can neither voice their pain nor give consent. Did you know that greater than 90% of all medical testing on animals is rendered inconclusive? Of the less than 10% that is conclusive over 60% of that does not translate to humans yet animal testing continues funded by our tax dollars, funded by the NIH. While the general population remains blissfully ignorant of the atrocities that occur in laboratories and universities around the country, millions, yes millions, of animals including primates, dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, ferrets, cows, sheep, mice and rats are dying each year. All in the name of medical science which have not been able to provide us cures for any disease only big pharma feeding us drugs with side effects that force more drugs until we are dependent on them just to live and breathe. Do I take meds? No.. Would I ever? No, everything I have ever needed was provided to me holistically. So far, so good!

Sep. 27 2012 03:48 PM

"Mice must be thrilled to have reached this level in their development..." Are you serious? I can't imagine mice are thrilled about any of this. Obviously the host hasn't considered the mouse's point of view.

Sep. 27 2012 03:19 PM
Stephen Roper

I strongly object to this report this on humanized mice. Actually, not to the report per se, but to its strange introduction. Lord knows we desperately need more information about, and more reporting on biomedical issues such as this. And ultimately, the piece with its thoughtful interview with Dr. Megan Sykes was just this.

However, introducing humanized mice by drawing a parallel with Frankenstein, including garish background music and conjuring up a bizarre laboratory scene, raises images of weird, maddish researchers creating monster mice (in fact, wasn't "monster" included in the broadcast?). This is unacceptable hyperbole, exaggerated journalism, and frankly, outright dangerous. It is difficult enough to get the US public to understand, appreciate, and support biomedical research. What the introduction did was to trivialize the subsequent discussion of very important research. Many in the audience probably listened to the rest of the story with a caricatured view of what Dr. Sykes and other hard-working scientists actually do in the laboratory.

Having said this, once past the Introduction, the presentation on humanized mice and the chat with Dr. Sykes was superb. Thoughtful. Insightful. Valuable. I just hope it wasn't too distorted by the first few minutes of that broadcast

Sep. 27 2012 10:53 AM
CF from NYC

For those of us living with PTSD the development of modern therapies like Dr. Francine Shapiro's EMDR have been life changing.

Sep. 27 2012 09:59 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Science Fiction is just stuff that hasn't happened yet. If you were to explore our scientific discoveries over the last 20 years, you would discover that most were written about as just a creative idea by a dude who was writing some pulp sci-fi story for fifty bucks, fifty years ago!

And,lets not forget that Scientists were once kids who read Science Fiction and then they grew up wanting to prove that Star Trek could become real.

Great segment and in the same way that in four years we won't remember the election, I will still be thinking about mice avatars. Of course, by then you might have a segment on "Human Avatars". Fun way to start the day.

Sep. 27 2012 09:31 AM

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