The mouse that cured:

The GM revolution in Britain's medical research laboratories


The importance to medical research of genetically modified (GM) mice was highlighted yesterday as official statistics showed that their use in scientific experiments has exploded over the past decade.

Almost all of the increase in animal testing since 2000 has resulted from the revolution in research that means biologists now routinely alter the genes of laboratory mice in order to mimic a range of human diseases, from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases to cancer and cystic fibrosis. For the first time, the number of scientific experiments and other "procedures" involving lab animals that have been either genetically modified or afflicted with harmful genetic mutations has exceeded the number using normal animals. More than a million GM mice were created in Britain last year alone. Such tests have already enhanced our understanding of a range of human diseases, from cancer to Alzheimer's and the common cold.

The total number of scientific procedures involving animals fell by 1 per cent last year, Home Office figures showed yesterday, but there was a steady and significant rise in the use of GM mutants, which accounted for nearly 53 per cent of the 3.6 million procedures carried out in Britain.

Most of the increase resulted from using or breeding GM mice for medical research, in which human diseases can be mimicked in animals as a result of changes to their DNA. This allows scientists to study human disorders in more detail under controlled conditions, and to test drugs and other potential treatments on animals before trying them on people.

About 3.5 million animals were used in last year's 3.6 million procedures – about 1 per cent fewer than were used in 2008. However, the number is still the second highest for 20 years and reflects a continuing upward trend, due primarily to greater use of GM animals and those with harmful genetic mutants.

Breeding to produce GM animals, mostly laboratory mice, and others with genetic mutations rose by 10 per cent last year to 1.5 million procedures. For the first time, experiments with genetically "normal" animals accounted for less than half of the total – 48 per cent. There was a 9 per cent rise in scientific procedures involving mice.

Researchers say the ability to breed GM mice that mimic human diseases, or have other traits that would not exist naturally, has revolutionised our understanding of the fundamental biology of human disorders and led to many breakthroughs in treatments. However, those opposed to vivisection question the value of such work, arguing that it offers only limited benefits and causes more suffering for animals.

Gemma Buckland, a science and policy officer at Humane Society International, an animal rights charity, said it was troubling to see such a rise in the use of GM animals that often suffered organ damage, physical deformities and tumours. She said that despite "very bold claims" made about their medical application, the truth was that "GM technology is still merely an attempt to add or knock out a gene in a different species to make it a less crude surrogate for humans".

"In [most] cases, the animal doesn't bear the desired genetic mutation and is simply killed as surplus," Dr Buckland said. "Even when the genetic mutation is successful, the end result is still an unsatisfactory animal model."

Scientific procedures using cats, dogs, monkeys and horses – which have special protection under law – all fell last year, by 7 per cent in the case of monkeys, by 3 per cent among dogs and 24 per cent among cats. Procedures involving mice accounted for three-quarters of all animal tests, while those involving monkeys, cats, dogs and horses accounted for less than 1 per cent.

The Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone said the figures showed the important work done to regulate vivisection in Britain, which was widely regarded as having the world's toughest laws for the licensing and monitoring of animal research. "The Government is committed to continuing with the highest standards of animal protection. We are also committed to ending the testing of household products on animals and working to reduce the use of animals in scientific research," she said.

Under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, animals can be used in experiments only if there is a clear potential benefit to either people, animals or the environment, and when there is no means of obtaining these benefits without using animals.

Scientists must obtain Home Office licences to work on animals and the 190 establishments with such licences are subject to spot-checks by inspectors. Last year there were 40 infringements of the rules, most of which were self-reported and fell into category "A", the least serious. No infringements fell into the worst category "D", which would have led to prosecution.

How can 'Supermice' help?


In the 1980s, Harvard scientists created OncoMouse, a GM mouse that was susceptible to cancer. It provided scientists with a useful animal "model" of a human disease that strikes one in three people at some time in their lives. Other GM mice that develop cancer have since been created.

Physical performance

In 2007, scientists developed a GM mouse with genes that affect glucose metabolism and the efficient use of body fat. The "supermouse" had extraordinary physical abilities comparable to the best human athletes, being able to run 4 miles for five hours without stopping.

Knock-out mice

Many GM mice used in medical research have had one or more of their genes deliberately disabled or removed. This targeted approach to creating GM mice allows scientists to mimic a range of human disorders known to be caused by a single defective gene.

Colour vision

Mice naturally see in blends of just two colours, while humans have trichromatic vision. In 2007, scientists created a GM mouse with three-colour vision by inserting a human gene for red colour vision into their genome. The research led to a better understanding of colour blindness in men.

Immune system

One of the most important strains of GM mice in medical research lacks a functioning immune system, which means they are susceptible to a number of illnesses and infectious diseases. This has proved invaluable in drug development.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot