Global Crisis Over Shortage of Mice : Blaze Devastates Leading Laboratory Supplier, Impedes Medical Research

Associated Press

A shortage of laboratory mice caused by a fire at a leading supplier is seriously impeding medical research across the United States, scientists say.

"Indeed, this loss is currently creating very serious problems for research scientists all over the world," said Dr. James B. Wyngaarden, director of the National Institutes of Health, in a recent letter to the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.

The laboratory is the world's leading center for the study of mouse genetics. A fire May 10 destroyed the laboratory's mouse production facilities and killed 400,000 research mice.

Before the fire, the laboratory was supplying 20% of the nation's laboratory mice, including many unusual strains unavailable elsewhere and crucial to certain experiments.

The mice "are essential to research on arthritis, lupus, cancer, heart disease, AIDS and some 4,000 hereditary diseases," said Nancy Wexler, president of the Hereditary Disease Foundation, in a letter to the laboratory.

Help Offered

Since the fire, the laboratory has received more than 1,500 letters from researchers offering their assistance and decrying the loss, the laboratory's director, Kenneth Paigen.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Bethesda, Md., sent the laboratory an unsolicited check for $750,000. The Arthur K. Watson Charitable Trust of New York City gave the laboratory $400,000 for its emergency rebuilding program.

Paigen estimated the losses from the fire at $40 million. The laboratory's insurance will reimburse about $15 million of that, covering the depreciated value of the production facilities--not the replacement cost, Paigen said.

The other losses come from the loss of mice, from cleanup costs, lost income and the beginning of a crash recovery program.

Jackson Laboratory mice have been used for 60 years to demonstrate the effectiveness of bone marrow transplants in treating some kinds of cancer, to understand the genetics of heart disease, the causes of diabetes and the basis of many inherited disorders.

Put on Hold

The fire is delaying much of that research. The Mayo Clinic, for example, was set to begin testing a new arthritis drug with Jackson Laboratory mice this summer. The research has been put on hold until the mice are again available, Paigen said.

Mice are useful for research because they can be bred to develop diseases similar to many human illnesses. In many cases, these mice are the only animals available to search for causes of diseases and evaluate new drugs before trying them with humans.

The fire began when a flammable adhesive being used by workers ignited, Paigen said. "Everybody who works at the lab mobilized to get as many animals out as they could," he said. "We actually saved 100,000 animals."

No strains of mice were permanently lost. A few animals of each strain, or in some cases frozen embryos, were stored outside the production facility as a precautionary measure. The problem is now to increase the numbers of those mice.

The laboratory has chosen a financially risky route of using its insurance money to set up an interim production facility that should be able to produce 24,000 mice a week by this fall. Before the fire, the laboratory was selling 40,000 mice a week to 11,200 labs around the world.

By not using the insurance money to construct a permanent facility, the laboratory is facing the possibility that its production operation will go out of business in as little as a year if more money is not found.

"Our responsibility was to get research animals out as fast as possible and worry about the financial problems later," Paigen said.

The laboratory has asked Congress for $25 million. A bill is pending in the Senate that would give that amount to the National Institutes of Health to help restore the nation's supply of research mice. Paigen is optimistic that much or all of that money, if approved by Congress, would be awarded to Jackson Laboratory.

If the money is not appropriated, "I don't know what we'll do," Paigen said. "We'll do what we can. Absolutely, we will not give up. The Jackson Laboratory will not come to an end."

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