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Immunology Uncaged

There is a difference between using an animal model to advance science and using an animal model to predict human response. In the final analysis, one must study humans and or their tissues. The below is a nice example of my position. You can click on the link for the full text.

Leslie 2010 writing in Science :

Researchers’ reliance on mice deserves some of the blame for this ignorance, says Davis. No mouse-phobe, he keeps 400 cages of the rodents for studies of how T cells recognize pathogen molecules. But mice, says Davis, make a “lousy model” for the human immune system. The human and mouse lineages diverged some 65 million years ago, and the rodent’s immune system has adapted to safeguard a small, short-lived animal that scurries around with its nose in the dirt. However, nobody has cataloged the differences, and as a result, inconsistencies between human and mouse immunity often leave patients in the lurch, Davis says: “Hundreds of clinical trials have been based on curing mice, but almost none led to clinical treatments.”

Take the case of myelin basic protein (MBP). Injecting MBP into mice causes a condition similar to multiple sclerosis, which can be prevented by doses of proteins that blunt the immune reaction to MBP. But clinical trials of these protective proteins were stopped because they made some people with multiple sclerosis worse.

Failures like that have spurred Davis to call for immunology to go big science in a very human way. If enough labs combine efforts to analyze the thousands of blood samples drawn in the United States or around the world every day, a so-called Human Immunology Project could quickly amass and scrutinize data from large numbers of healthy and sick people, Davis says. Within 5 to 10 years, he predicts, “we could have the first crude benchmarks of immune function” . . . Davis is far from the first to point out the “mouse” problem in immunology. “Studies on mice are very elegant and beautiful, but they aren’t reflecting the needs of the [human] population,” says Jacques Banchereau, head of the Baylor Institute for Immunological Research in Dallas, Texas . . . Banchereau is supportive of Davis’s call. So is Ralph Steinman of Rockefeller University in New York City, who suggests that such a project could benefit one of his areas of interest: vaccines. “The truth is that to push vaccine science—say, for HIV or cancer—will require a major effort in human immunology.”

Davis’s push for more basic research on human immunity has also impressed people who control the scientific purse strings. He’s received grants for such work from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And last year the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced that it would spend $100 million over five years on “human immune profiling research centers” that will track how our immune system responds to jolts such as vaccination and infection. The first grants are due to be awarded in May . . . Even some of the biggest fans of Davis’s idea wonder, however, if such a project is affordable given the current economic climate. But unless we attempt to understand how our own immune system works, “we won’t realize the health benefits of immunology,” Davis says. “It’s not a sustainable strategy to stay focused on mice.” (Leslie 2010)


Leslie, M. 2010. Biomedical research. Immunology uncaged. Science 327 (5973):1573.


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