Rodents have been used in scientific experiments for over 150 years because they are similar to humans both genetically as well as physiologically. Not to mention the fact that they are small and relatively low maintenance. These tiny animals have played a large role in medical advancements over the years. In fact, rodents make up roughly 95% of all lab animals (Schipani). They have assisted with everything from drug research to diseases and scientists, with the help of these four-legged creatures, have expanded the potential of medicine far beyond what we once thought was possible. Take for example, earmouse.

This image of the Vicanti mouse shocked and mystified the public. Image credit: BBC News.

Meet Earmouse:

In 1989 Charles Vicanti, Joseph Vicanti, and Bob Langer were curious about whether or not they could find a means of producing body parts in a laboratory (Hugo). A friend of theirs, a pediatric surgeon, said that one of the most problematic reconstructions were ears. This conversation resulted in the team crafting scaffolding in the shape of an ear out of dissolvable materials (Hugo-”Exclusive”). Cartilage cells from a cow were spread over the scaffolding and left to grow. A strain of mouse that was immunocompromised was chosen for the experiment because the mouse’s immune system wasn’t going to kill off the cow cells (Hugo). The mouse was put to sleep and the ear was inserted under the skin where it developed on the mouse’s backside.

Reaction to the Vicanti Mouse:

In 1997, BBC released images of the mouse with an ear on it and people went mad. Conversation amongst the general public brought up a number of ethical questions and concerns surrounding genetic engineering. Genetic engineering was not involved though and the ear contained no human cells nor was it ever transplanted onto a human being. These experiments were used as a means of practicing and perfecting the art of growing tissues so that medical professionals would one day have the capacity to help patients grow their own parts (Hugo). 

Once the data was reported, Earmouse had the ear removed and was allowed to live out the rest of his days like a normal mouse (Hugo-”Exclusive”). Unfortunately, that isn’t typically the case for lab animals. It is estimated that 100 million lab rats and mice are killed in the United States each year (Schipani). Oftentimes these animals are euthanized using carbon dioxide because it is effective and cheap (Schipani). Although most laboratories and colleges have mandatory training on how to deal with lab animals in a humane and compassionate way, there is still a lot of suffering. Not to mention the fact that the results are never foolproof. For instance, a medicine that shows a positive result in a  rat may have a very negative effect on humans. It requires a lot of trial and error.

Many scientists and medical professionals have the long-term goal of phasing out the use of animals for things such as tissue generation, and instead, get to the point where human cells are being used to generate human structures on human patients. Even though the debate about the use of lab animals is often heartbreaking, it is important to at least recognize all that their sacrifices have helped produce for us. Our general ability to sympathize with the suffering of animals relates directly to what sort of relationship we hold with them. Those attitudes can play a large role in how we think about food, experimentation, and living standards in relation to various species. At the end of the day, all animals play a role in our world and should always be treated with dignity and respect.

A man who was in a motor accident having a replacement ear grown on his arm. Image credit: Deccan Chronicle.

Thanks so much for reading!

Until Next Time

N.F.

Sources:

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