On the Dreadful Future of Lab Mice
Now that we know that monkeys are comparable in the kinds of intelligence that we value in our college students, I shall go out on a proverbial limb and make the following prognostication: in my lifetime, I will see the abolition of monkeys as laboratory animals for human disease and toxicity research.
Heck, we may even see the end of live dog, cat and pig labs.
Why am I so certain of this? Because we are only increasing the numbers of mice we use (after, of course we’ve genetically manipulated them and/or caused them to have diseases they would never have). And though many are in an uproar over the use of creatures who are too much like us for comfort, I don’t hear many people crying out for justice for lab mice. Yet.
I’m going to make a concerted effort to write only about positive stories from tomorrow until (and including) Christmas, but for today I present you with a deconstruction of the less-than-uplifting "Of Men and Mice" by Greg Critser in this month’s Harper’s.
- The most ironic, and saddest, part about the article is best explained by Critser. When George W. Bush explained why he’d veto attempts to expand access to human embryo-driven stem-cells for research, here’s why:
A mouse had come to the rescue. Never mind that the viruses used to stick the genes into the cells had caused cancer in a number of the mice, or that, compared with the human embryoâdriven stem-cell techniques that already show likely treatments for the cruelest of diseases, the mouse method was still in its infancy. No, the mouse breakthrough, as a
Los Angeles Times headline writer put it, "may put ethical concerns to rest."
That a 20-gram rodent could lay to rest one of our most divisive medical/ethics debates might strike a visitor from Neptune as being a bit odd, but that alien visitor would quickly go native were he to spend some time acquainting himself with the practices of the modern research laboratory.
There he would discover that the mighty mouse is king (65).
So here’s the ethical dilemma: rather than using stem cells, which Bush has called "the taking of innocent human life," we create, torture and destroy mice. Here’s the truth about the human embryo from which stem cells are extracted (from the same Boston Globe article with the Bush quote, which is a must-read primer on the debate).
It is not implanted and growing in a woman’s uterus. It is not a fetus. It has no recognizable human features or form. It is, rather, a blastocyst, a cluster of 180 to 200 cells, growing in a petri dish, barely visible to the naked eye. Such blastocysts are either cloned in the lab or created in fertility clinics. The bill pending in Congress would fund stem cell research only on excess blastocysts left over from infertility treatments.
The blastocyst represents such an early stage of embryonic development that the cells it contains have not yet differentiated, or taken on the properties of particular organs or tissues — kidneys, muscles, spinal cord, and so on. This is why the stem cells that are extracted from the blastocyst hold the promise of developing, with proper coaxing in the lab, into any kind of cell the researcher wants to study or repair.
If the President found stem cell research so morally abhorrent, he should be banning it, not just refusing to allocate federal funds to it.
The president’s refusal to ban privately-funded embryonic stem cell research is not the only way in which his policies betray the principle that embryos are persons. In the course of treating infertility, American fertility clinics routinely discard thousands of human embryos. The bill now before the Senate would fund stem cell research only on these excess embryos, which are already bound for destruction. (This is also the position taken by former governor Mitt Romney, who supports stem cell research on embryos left over from fertility clinics.) Although Bush would ban the use of such embryos in federally funded research, he has not called for legislation to ban the creation and destruction of embryos by fertility clinics.
But if embryos are human beings, to allow fertility clinics to discard them is to countenance, in effect, the widespread creation and destruction of surplus children. Those who believe that a blastocyst is morally equivalent to a baby must believe that the 400,000 excess embryos languishing in freezers in US fertility clinics are like newborns left to die by exposure on a mountainside. But those who view embryos in this way should not only be opposing embryonic stem cell research; they should also be leading a campaign to shut down what they must regard as rampant infanticide in fertility clinics.
Genetically engineering mice with diseases they’d never get is an ethical step UP from using an undifferentiated cell mass that is not sentient? What kind of twisted logic got us in this position, and why are respected journalists and scientists stepping all over each other to endorse it?
Back to the original article.
- "The Unites States consumes some 80 million rats and mice a year–one for every four Americans–for the ostensible purpose of making our lives better" (65).
- "Science can now make mice that mimic depression, develop Alzheimer’s and heart disease, show the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, drug addiction and obsessive hair-pulling" (66). Remember, this is supposed to represent an ethical dilemma resolved.
- "Even the pesky animal-rights community, from the sincere PETA to the thuggish Animal Liberation Front, seems to be on board with mouse science. PETA’s over-the-top public ad campaigns prefer to focus on the fate of empathogenic monkeys, dogs, and cats–despite those animals’ minuscule role in modern science. Ask a roomful of animal livers what they think of mice, as I did at a recent family gathering, and you’re likely to get blank stares. . . . If you decide to kill your pet dog or cat and people find out about it, you’re likely to face trial and imprisonment. Mice, however, seem to be the great exception to America’s animal-welfare consensus, which is curious, since the mouse, because of genetic engineering, now stands as the ultimate medical proxy for humans" (66).
Sincere PETA? I’m not even sure what that means. But he’s right and it’s our fault. Through our hierarchical thinking, we’re furious about experimenting on either the cute and furry or those who are most like us. And in the end, we’ve saved the bulk of our abuse for the cute and furry whom we’ve made more like us.
- Critser humanizes the individuals who spend their days abusing and slaughtering mice. He presents them as "good folk" who are supporting their families with their honest work. They managed to get used to what their doing, including "all that euthanasia" (the mice are all inevitably killed).
- Critser presents "the humane imperative: never cause the animal unnecessary anxiety or pain" (66) and acts like that means something when you’ve engineered a creature to keep her captive, stick needles in her constantly, watch her suffer and deteriorate, and then kill her.
- There are jokes about "splatting" the mice (use your imagination), and how the practice is discouraged, even if the mice bites you (gee, why would she want to do that?).
- "But if the mouse is such a good model, with the feds and big pharmaceutical companies spending billions on mouse-based science, then why is the pharmaceutical industry’s vaunted ‘research pipeline’ so dry? Ask that question too many times in the modern lab world and you’re in for, as I was, another background check to make sure you aren’t some animal-rights type. Yet the question deserves an answer, however unsexy, and it is this: It takes time to understand human diseases with any animal model, and even longer to develop a compound to treat a disease without killing the patient first. . . . As PETA is fond of pointing out, there have been no new drugs, to date, that were discovered using genetically modified mice" (70).
All of this time, all of this money, a burgeoning industry worth billions, and all to avoid using an undifferentiated mass of cells that could probably give us the answers we need without involving anything Faustian.
- "The mouse, like the computer, has become a driving force behind the commodification of science–science as product, wrapped in its own black box, the ever-mutating modern mouse as its foreman, architect, and shill. And commodification–as we know from our experience with cheap convenience food and obesity, for example–comes with new prices and new responsibilities. The mouse model may require that we reevaluate our moral stance toward these animals" (72). So once a being becomes useful enough to get bumped down (up?) in status to "thing" or "commodity," we have a moral obligation? Talk about moral relativity!
- Driving the change to treat mice better (they aren’t included in the Animal Welfare Act, as I’m sure you know) are independent ethologists, who basically showed that when you don’t treat mice well they’re not reliable research tools. (Note that change has not come from pressure from animal welfarists, mainly because they’re so busy with chimps and dogs).
- Critser mentions the three R’s (reduce, reuse, refine) and thinks we need to "be consistent in our beliefs about animal welfare, [and] give to the lab mouse what we give to our pets" (74). That’s all well and good if you believe breeding and using them is some kind of moral imperative (and I still don’t understand why anyone would, particularly considering the existence of stems cells).
- Mice, as it turns out, are capable of empathy (you do NOT want to know how that was determined), which paradoxically, brings us back to them being a lot more like us than not.
If mice are really mini-monkeys, emotionally speaking, how long before the pitiful stares on the anti-vivisection posters feature mice? After all, we may use 40,000 lab monkeys in a year in the United States, but we use 80 million rats and mice. And that is NOT counting the 70 percent of all male mice–usually too aggressive for use in studies–that are euthanized before weaning (74). (And note that that stat is repeated several more times on page 75 in case it didn’t sink in the first time.)
- Critser does appear to support the development of non-mouse alternatives and notes that the NIH doesn’t take a firm enough stand calling for "consideration" of non-animal means (76).
The mouse story, then, has come full circle because of one deficiency of humans: we value life that is most like ours. Now that we know how much mice are like us, and can be made to be like us, is the exponential increase in the mouse industry going to provide the discoveries and cures that scientists have been unable to provide for all these years using their less-genetically modified ancestors? Or will the industry collapse because scientists (note–not animal-rights activists) grow a moral limb and realize, for whatever reason, that creating mice, particularly when there is no pressing need to, to experiment on and slaughter them probably isn’t right no matter how you slice it.