We go through a lot of mice in this business. They’re generally the first animal that a potential drug runs up against: in almost every case, you dose mice to check pharmacokinetics (blood levels and duration), and many areas have key disease models that run in mice as well. That’s because we know a lot about mouse genetics (compared to other animals), and we have a wide range of natural mutants, engineered gene-knockout animals (difficult or impossible to do with most other species), and chimeric strains with all sorts of human proteins substituted back in. I would not wish to hazard a guess as to how many types of mice have been developed in biomedical labs over the years; it is a large number representing a huge amount of effort.

But are mice always telling us the right thing? I’ve written about this problem before, and it certainly hasn’t gone away. The key things to remember about any animal model is that (1) it’s a model, and (2) it’s in an animal. Not a human. But it can be surprisingly hard to keep these in mind, because there’s no other way for a compound to become a drug other than going through the mice, rats, etc. No regulatory agency on Earth (OK, with the possible exception of North Korea) will let a compound through unless it’s been through numerous well-controlled animal studies, for short- and long-term toxicity at the very least.

These thoughts are prompted by an interesting and alarming paper that’s come out in PNAS: “Genomic responses in mouse models poorly mimic human inflammatory diseases”. And that’s the take-away right there, which is demonstrated comprehensively and with attention to detail.

Murine models have been extensively used in recent decades to identify and test drug candidates for subsequent human trials. However, few of these human trials have shown success. The success rate is even worse for those trials in the field of inflammation, a condition present in many human diseases. To date, there have been nearly 150 clinical trials testing candidate agents intended to block the inflammatory response in critically ill patients, and every one of these trials failed. Despite commentaries that question the merit of an overreliance of animal systems to model human immunology, in the absence of systematic evidence, investigators and public regulators assume that results from animal research reflect human disease. To date, there have been no studies to systematically evaluate, on a molecular basis, how well the murine clinical models mimic human inflammatory diseases in patients.

What this large multicenter team has found is that while various inflammation stresses (trauma, burns, endotoxins) in humans tend to go through pretty much the same pathways, the same is not true for mice. Not only do they show very different responses from humans (as measured by gene up- and down-regulation, among other things), they show different responses to each sort of stress. Humans and mice differ in what genes are called on, in their timing and duration of expression, and in what general pathways these gene products are found. Mice are completely inappropriate models for any study of human inflammation.

And there are a lot of potential reasons why this turns out to be so:

There are multiple considerations to our finding that transcriptional response in mouse models reflects human diseases so poorly, including the evolutional distance between mice and humans, the complexity of the human disease, the inbred nature of the mouse model, and often, the use of single mechanistic models. In addition, differences in cellular composition between mouse and human tissues can contribute to the differences seen in the molecular response. Additionally, the different temporal spans of recovery from disease between patients and mouse models are an inherent problem in the use of mouse models. Late events related to the clinical care of the patients (such as fluids, drugs, surgery, and life support) likely alter genomic responses that are not captured in murine models.

But even with all the variables inherent in the human data, our inflammation response seems to be remarkably coherent. It’s just not what you see in mice. Mice have had different evolutionary pressures over the years than we have; their heterogeneous response to various sorts of stress is what’s served them well, for whatever reasons.

There are several very large and ugly questions raised by this work. All of us who do biomedical research know that mice are not humans (nor are rats, nor are dogs, etc.) But, as mentioned above, it’s easy to take this as a truism – sure, sure, knew that – because all our paths to human go through mice and the like. The New York Times article on this paper illustrates the sort of habits that you get into (emphasis below added):

The new study, which took 10 years and involved 39 researchers from across the country, began by studying white blood cells from hundreds of patients with severe burns, trauma or sepsis to see what genes are being used by white blood cells when responding to these danger signals.The researchers found some interesting patterns and accumulated a large, rigorously collected data set that should help move the field forward, said Ronald W. Davis, a genomics expert at Stanford University and a lead author of the new paper. Some patterns seemed to predict who would survive and who would end up in intensive care, clinging to life and, often, dying.

The group had tried to publish its findings in several papers. One objection, Dr. Davis said, was that the researchers had not shown the same gene response had happened in mice.

“They were so used to doing mouse studies that they thought that was how you validate things,” he said. “They are so ingrained in trying to cure mice that they forget we are trying to cure humans.”

“That started us thinking,” he continued. “Is it the same in the mouse or not?”

What’s more, the article says that this paper was rejected from Science and Nature, among other venues. And one of the lead authors says that the reviewers mostly seemed to be saying that the paper had to be wrong. They weren’t sure where things had gone wrong, but a paper saying that murine models were just totally inappropriate had to be wrong somehow.

We need to stop being afraid of the obvious, if we can. “Mice aren’t humans” is about as obvious a statement as you can get, but the limitations of animal models are taken so much for granted that we actually dislike being told that they’re even worse than we thought. We aren’t trying to cure mice. We aren’t trying to make perfect diseases models and beautiful screening cascades. We aren’t trying to perfectly match molecular targets with diseases, and targets with compounds. Not all the time, we aren’t. We’re trying to find therapies that work, and that goal doesn’t always line up with those others. As painful as it is to admit.

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