Sandy and the Lost Mice

Genetically modified mice are the currency of much biomedical research. They are so valuable that Dupont tried to patent them (see this history of that by Fiona Murray). But what happens if suddenly that resource were to disappear. That is pretty much what happened at New York University the other week when Hurricane Sandy hit.

Even more alarming, thousands of mice that are used by scientists for cancer research and other experiments, drowned during a flood. It is unclear how the mice died, but the source told the News that many of these mice are genetically modified for certain research and took years to produce. It will likely set back several scientists’ work by years, the source said.
“This does not equate to a loss of life, but it is extremely disheartening to see years of research go down the drain,” the source said.

As economists, we often wonder about how valuable certain resources are. While this loss is tragic, one suspects that an experiment in terms of its impact on research output looms in our future.

Related, Sandy also triggered recovery efforts to protect lab resources [HT: Paula Stephan]. This involved a shelving of otherwise tense rivalries:

“I’ve had 43 people who have offered to help so far, and some of them are direct competitors,” said Gordon Fishell, associate director of the N.Y.U. Neuroscience Institute, who lost more than 5,000 genetically altered mice when storm waters surged the night of Oct. 30, cutting off power. “It’s just been unbelievable,” he said. “It really buoys my spirits and my lab’s.”

As it turns out, this isn’t entirely selfless as the lab system is very interdependent these days.

The response reflects large shifts in the way that science is conducted over the past generation or so. Individual labs always compete to be first, but researchers increasingly share materials that are enormously expensive and time-consuming to reproduce. The loss of a single cell line or genetically altered animal can slow progress for years in some areas of biomedical research.

“We are totally dependent on each other in the life sciences now, for a very large number of cell lines and extracts, research animals and unique chemical tools and antibodies that might not have backup copies anywhere in the world, or in very few places,” said Dr. Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard. “Losing any of these tools tears a significant hole in the entire field.”

More fodder for analysis there too.

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