Can Longevity Studies in Mice Be Made Shorter and Cheaper?

Any prospective longevity therapy will have to be studied in mice: numerous experiments for testing and replication throughout the scientific community, with each experiment potentially requiring three or more years to produce results. Mouse studies are very expensive in both time and money, which is one reason why matters are not advancing as rapidly as they might in the field of applied aging research.

Can this bottleneck be removed by speeding up the studies or reducing their cost? Obviously in the long run the answer is yes: real mice will be replaced by very detailed simulations of mouse biology, and processing power will be so cheap that experiments involving thousands of sim-mice will run for sim-years in a matter of real world days. Everyone will be happy to see the back of racks of lab mice, the costs associated with their maintenance, and the whole industry of running animal studies in real time.

This future is a way away, however - ten to twenty years, give or take. With an eye to the here and now, here is a paper that looks at what might be done today to make the work move faster:

Many rodent experiments have assessed effects of diets, drugs, genes, and other factors on life span. A challenge with such experiments is their long duration, typically over 3.5 years given rodent life spans, thus requiring significant time costs until answers are obtained. We collected longevity data from 15 rodent studies and artificially truncated them at 2 years to assess the extent to which one will obtain the same answer regarding mortality effects. When truncated, the point estimates were not significantly different in any study, implying that in most cases, truncated studies yield similar estimates. The median ratio of variances of coefficients for truncated to full-length studies was 3.4, implying that truncated studies with roughly 3.4 times as many rodents will often have equivalent or greater power. Cost calculations suggest that shorter studies will be more expensive but perhaps not so much to not be worth the reduced time.

Shorter but not cheaper is possible, or so it seems. This isn't too surprising; researchers have the same incentives as everyone else, and will aim to maximize the publishable output of their scientific work given a set budget. If there was a way to use statistics and truncation to cut down on mouse study costs, I'm sure it would have made its way into common usage at some point over the past century.

Another potential disadvantage of truncation: if you cut short your study, you take yourself out of the running for establishing a new mouse life span record. If you have what looks like an impressive advance, you'll want to keep the study going. Building a better mouse is a ticket to the big leagues in the present day biotechnology community.


I have the feeling real experiments will never completely disappear, since you want to find out something that you did not know before. If you can stimulate it, then in principle you already know it. But I guess theory and simulation can guide development.

Posted by: Jochem Deen at November 9th, 2010 4:21 AM

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