What GM mice can tell us about pancreatic cancer (and medical charities)

I’ve written on the growing importance of genetically modified (GM) mice in cancer research before, but it’s been a little while since I revisited the subject. So when I saw this BBC story yesterday on how scientists at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute has used an elegant study in GM mice to identify a gene whose suppression contributes to the development of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma – one of the most lethal cancers – I was all set to write a blog post about it.

Then I noticed that Kat Arney at the Cancer Research Science Blog had beaten me to it, with an excellent overview of the study and its implications. I recommend that you go straight over and read her blog post.

The Nature paper describing this study can be read here.

A fascinating aspect of this work is that human genetic studies had failed to reveal the role of the Usp9x gene in pancreatic cancer, and it was only when the GM mice studies were undertaken that its importance became clear.  Does this mean that the human genetic studies were misleading? Does it mean that they were useless? Well, that would be thinking like an anti-vivisectionist.  While it’s true that the human genetic studies were initially misleading about Usp9x in pancreatic cancer, it was by combining the information from human genetic studies with that from the GM mouse studies, and the additional information from in vitro studies, that the mechanism through which Usp9x suppression contributes to the development of pancreatic cancer was revealed.

This is yet another example of the important role played by animal studies alongside  many other approaches in medical research, and I hope that it soon leads to much -needed improvments in therapy for pancreatic cancer.

There’s another aspect to this story that is almost as interesting as the science itself.  Many animal rights activists like to claim that leading medical research charities conceal their funding of animal research, indeed just the other week the animal rights activist Peter Tatchell wrote a truly execrable article in the Huffingdon Post which included the claim that:

A disturbing desire for secrecy about animal experiments is shared by a number of respected, high-profile medical charities, including the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and the Alzheimer’s Society. “

Several comments quickly pointed out that this (along with most other aspects of the article) was factually incorrect, indeed it is difficult to see how the British Heart Foundation could be more open about their animal research. So far as Cancer Research UK is concerned, perhaps somebody should ask Peter Tatchell how issuing a press release, and then discussing their animal research with the BBC and in more detail on their science blog is compatible with “desire for secrecy about animal experiments “.  I guess that Peter Tatchell isn’t one to let the facts ruin a good spin!

Paul Browne