Nathaniel Scharping in Discover:
“Cancer has been cured a thousand times.”
So says Christopher Austin, the director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health. Austin should know — as the director of NCATS, his focus is on exactly these kinds of groundbreaking laboratory studies. His proclamation comes with a significant caveat that will pop the bubbles in your champagne. Austin is so interested in these studies because they all happened in mice, in a lab. When the hundreds of different drugs that made mouse tumors disappear were carried forward to human trials, they went in and came out without doing what they promised. Or worse, they turned out to be toxic. The failure of drugs and procedures to translate from animal models to humans plagues the entirety of medical research. An astounding 90 percent of drug trials never make it from the first phase of development to FDA approval, and the humble lab mouse shoulders much of the blame. Long held as the standard model for animal research, scientific advances have called the reign of the mouse into question. But should scientists ditch their furry lab model altogether, or can they simply design a better mouse?
Mice were introduced into the lab back in the 1920s, when an ambitious young geneticist named Clarence Cook Little believed he had found the perfect model for studying cancer. Little strongly believed that cancer was an inheritable disease, and mice, short-lived and low maintenance, turned out to be the ideal subjects for his experiments. Little would go on to found The Jackson Laboratory and sold mouse strains to researchers all over the country, even going so far as to secure the mouse as the official animal model for research funded with government grants following the passage of the National Cancer Institute Act in 1937.