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15Feb 2013

Surprising result: Mice are not good models for (some!) ilnesses in humans.

Gina Kolata

At some point last year, when I turned in part of my book on fathers to my editor, she took note of the findings that came from studies of mice. The editor, not a science journalist but a former editor at Time, said, "I called my friend at Time magazine. She told me you can't learn anything from mice."

I was puzzled by this. Yes, we've all discovered that many drugs that look promising in mice do not look promising in humans. And yes, we might expect that furry little critters that live inside walls, operate mainly by sense of smell, and can be nearly impossible to keep out of the kitchen might be different from humans, whose only similarity is that it's sometimes hard to keep them out of the kitchen.

But if we really learn nothing from mice, why so many seemingly smart scientists spend billions of dollars and their entire lives studying the darn things? When I went back to researchers to ask whether my editor could possibly be right, I couldn't find one who agreed with her. They told me there were close similarities between the brains of mice and humans and that mice were therefore well suited to the study of human behavior.

That's a point that Gina Kolata might have made in a story Monday in The New York Times that made it sound as if mice are worthless for research. Here is how she began:

For decades, mice have been the species of choice in the study of human diseases. But now, researchers report evidence that the mouse model has been totally misleading for at least three major killers — sepsis, burns and trauma. As a result, years and billions of dollars have been wasted following false leads, they say.

Yes, she qualified it. And yes, in the second graf she wrote, "The study’s findings do not mean that mice are useless models for all human diseases." Then she goes on to report something that the study did not say--that the finding "raises at least the possibility" that mice might likewise be of little value in the study of cancer and heart disease.

The words "heart" and "cancer" did not appear in the online version of the study.

At that point, about all we are left with is that mice might be good models for, say, hangnails, or tasting cheese.

The story hammers the point, and hammers it again, that the research "is a game changer," and that the researchers had difficulty publishing it because it was so unexpected. All of that is fine, but Kolata might have said a good bit more about where mice are useful in research, rather than raising and disposing of that issue by saying the new findings do not mean mice are not useless for all human diseases. Avoiding the double negative would have been nice, in favor of something like, "Mice are still believed to be valuable for the study of [insert disease] and [insert disease], researchers said."

Again, Kolata did not write that mice were useless for all research. But readers could be forgiven for thinking that.

-Paul Raeburn

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