We have discovered so much information about our bodies and the development of diseases thanks to genetic research on animals such as mice. The use of mice in particular is invaluable to biomedical research because their basic biology is actually very similar to ours.
Their genes can be altered in ways that imitate human diseases like Alzheimer’s, and the way they react to certain treatments is a very promising indication as to how our own bodies may react.
In short, without our genetically modified furry friends, medical advances would not be where they are at today.
Making transparent mice
This month, researchers at the California Institute of Technology, have developed transparent mice with see-through organs in order to study the finer details of anatomy closer than ever before, such as the nervous system.
Unfortunately for those of you with a thing for alternative pets (like hairless cats – seriously, why?), these completely clear rodents are not going to be a novelty pet idea, as they are used exclusively for research. The transparent-making process isn’t performed on mice that are still alive and moving either!
A little disappointing as this may be, the point of this research is to find new therapies for conditions like autism and chronic pain. How? Well, organs being see-through could pave the way to a better understanding of brain-body interactions, as there will be fewer obstructions from opaque tissues.
This could lead to more accurate clinical diagnoses, as it can often be a difficult task for doctors to diagnose from symptoms alone. Chronic pain, for example, can sometimes appear to have no physical cause, yet patients will be in agony. Clear tissues may well provide more of an insight in to how these things come about.
Mice and diabetes
The use of mice in research is also very important in the development of potential treatments for autoimmune diseases, which are especially common and problematic in the western world. Type 1 diabetes for example, causes the body to attack insulin producing cells in the pancreas, so that sufferers do not produce enough, or any, insulin.
The treatment has always been regular, manual injections of insulin into the body, but this could all soon change.
A study by scientists at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in California have transformed alpha cells of mice (other cells in the pancreas) into beta cells, which are the cell type that secrete insulin and are destroyed by diabetics’ immune systems.
Diabetic mice with almost zero beta cells were given a peptide called caerulein, which was discovered in the skin of Australian Blue Mountains tree frogs, which is a protein that stimulates the secretion of digestive enzymes.
The caerulein caused the alpha cells to redevelop into insulin-producing beta cells. If this method was replicated and successful in humans, the constant monitoring of blood sugar levels and regular injections of insulin could be a thing of the past.
Invaluable to advances in disease treatments
Mice research is so exciting when it succeeds, because it means that possible human therapies are potentially not too far behind. When it works in the mouse body, there is a good chance that human clinical trials will have some success too.
Researchers in Zurich believe they have found cured rheumatoid arthritis in mice, and treatment for humans could be rolled out in a few short years time. Anyone suffering from arthritis knows how debilitating it is, and thousands of lives could be changed.
There is a lot of research going into Alzheimer’s disease also, including researchers from Yale School of Medicine that have discovered a new drug compound that has reversed the effects of the disease in mice. They have discovered a compound called TC-2153 that inhibits the effects of a protein called STEP which prevents synaptic strengthening in the brain when its levels are too high.
Synaptic strengthening is a process that’s required to turn short-term memories into long-term memories. STEP is also associated with other cognitive problems like Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.
Reversing Alzheimer’s in mice is an exciting step towards many drug treatments, although it is too soon to tell whether it will definitely be effective in humans. Alzheimer’s in particular is a very busy realm of research, and mice will continue to be a massive part of that and hundreds of other studies.
We have a lot to thank them for!
What do you think? Have your say in the comments section below.
Image: Global Panorama / Flickr