I'm not made happy by the necessity of animal research in medicine; we all have a little of the paradise engineer in us. In my case, I think that we have something of an obligation to work towards extending relief from suffering to those beings not as intelligent as ourselves. But animal research is necessary, very much so if we are to move as rapidly as possible into an era of radically extended healthy life spans. This will continue to be true until we can adequately simulate almost all of what we need to find out - a point I've made before:
In the not so distant future, biotechnology will come to look much like present day software development. This is somewhat inevitable, given the falling cost of computing power. While a great deal of the newest biotechnology is powered by advances in computational technology, ultimately everything bio will benefit. Most currently real world experimental techniques - rather than just a select few - will become cheaper to carry out in simulation. Why spend millions keeping racks of mice when you can spend hundreds of thousands on reliable, tested software to do the same job - software that will become cheaper by an order of magnitude with each passing decade.
Financially attractive experiments using simulated animal (or human) tissue or bodies don't just require stable software platforms and falling costs of processor power; they also require a large foundation of research and data. You have to make sure that your simulation reflects reality through a suitable (and invariably painstaking) program of analysis of and checking against reality. One of the first steps on this road - albeit a largely inadvertent step, made with different and more immediate goals in mind - is underway in Europe:
In Venice this weekend, scientists launched a €100 million EU programme to breed millions of genetically engineered mice. The aim is to recreate all the main human ailments - diabetes, heart disease, cancer and mental illness - in the mouse. In doing so, the genetic and environmental roots of these conditions will be exposed and new paths to the creation of drugs and treatments revealed.
The EuroMouse programme will involve using a strain of mouse known as the BL/6 or Black Six. These are already used extensively in laboratory experiments and are completely inbred. Each male is an exact clone of all other Black Six males, and similarly for females, no matter if used in an Australian or an Austrian laboratory.
From their populations of Black Sixes, EuroMouse scientists will take embryos, delete or modify one of the genes in them, and then put the genetically engineered embryos back into mice wombs to create a new population, one that has a single mutant gene inside each member.
This process will then be repeated for each of the mouse's 20,000 genes. 'Eventually, this will give us 20,000 strains of mice, each with a different mutated gene,' added Birney.
Each mouse strain will then be observed to see how this mutation manifests itself in the animal's appearance and behaviour. Thus, scientists will find out what each mouse gene does and, from that, what each corresponding human gene does.
This type of project has already been accomplished for yeast; these breeding projects and the resulting analysis is an important part of the groundwork for the future of much more efficient, rapid and effective simulated experiments in medical research.
Technorati tags: science