The British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, so the story goes, was once asked what he had been able to deduce about God from studying
nature. "An inordinate fondness for beetles," Haldane replied.
It wasn't the answer his interlocutor wanted, I suppose, but it's elegant as well as funny. With an estimated five to eight
million species, accounting for a quarter of all known life forms, beetles have to count for something when you're assessing
Take the same sort of logic and apply it to another question: What can we say about modern medicine? The answer, of course,
is that it's brilliant at curing the ailments of mice.
Honestly, forget about people. Mus musculus is where the action is. Browse through just the most recent reports, and you'll discover that scientists have cured mice
of a whole array of diseases that still plague humankind.
Take Alzheimer's. Just last month Ashley Bush of the Mental Health Research Institute of Victoria, Australia, and co-founding
scientist of Prana Biotechnology, reported that his experimental compound was able to reduce soluble beta-amyloid levels in
the brain, and restore normal function to mouse synapses in just five days. Memory? You can't ask a mouse to remember his
grandchildren's names, but you can see if he remembers how to get through a maze. Bush's treated mice did.
Or Parkinson's. Viviane Tabar, a Sloan-Kettering Institute neurosurgeon, reported in March that she was able to cure mice
with the degenerative CNS condition with a stem cell treatment made from skin cells taken from the animals' tails.
Or sickle cell anemia. Scientists recently stopped that inherited blood disease cold by replacing part of the critters' bone
marrow with genetically engineered stem cells created from tail skin cells.
Diabetes? Take your pick of techniques. A few years back, Denise Faustman of Massachusetts General Hospital cured two-thirds
of a group of diabetic mice by overstimulating their immune systems, causing white blood cells to self-destruct, shutting
down an autoimmune attack on their pancreas' insulin-producing beta cells. More recently, doctors in Toronto eliminated the
disease in their mice almost overnight after treating them with a peptide that target-ed malfunctioning pain neurons in the
And the list goes on, including various forms of cancer, blindness, West Nile disease, symptoms of autism and retardation,
radiation sickness. If you're a mouse, and you've got one of those diseases, you have hope. (Of course, if you're a mouse
with one of those diseases, chances are that the guy treating you gave it to you in the first place. Research, as the old
joke goes, is a major cause of disease in mice.)
Some of these treatments will ultimately be used to cure people. Many will not. Mice are physiologically simpler than we are;
they're cheap and easy to work with; and—most importantly—very few have lawyers. Why wouldn't we understand them better than we understand ourselves? Try as we might, that will probably never change.
I picture a line of medical researchers marching to heaven's gate to face the Last Judgment. And before their creator they
confess with sadness: "We never could cure people the way we could cure mice." God, in his infinite wisdom, looks up from
his beloved beetles and welcomes them to their eternal reward. And so, rejoicing, do the mice. —Patrick Clinton