Jackson Lab Gears Up To Meet Demands Of “Mouse Decade”

The world's foremost supplier of genetically engineered mice, the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, is scurrying to hire as many as 20 geneticists over the next three to four years. 

Ron Kaufman
Jun 21, 1992

The world's foremost supplier of genetically engineered mice, the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, is scurrying to hire as many as 20 geneticists over the next three to four years. These scientists will join the 23 principal investigators currently working at the lab, says its director, Kenneth Paigen.

Struck by a fire in May 1989 that left five men injured, destroyed an entire wing of the complex, and killed 350,000 mice, Jackson Lab has recovered and is now expanding its facilities.

An $11 million, 49,000-square-foot research building is being designed by Boston-based contractor Payette Inc. According to Paigen, the new workplace, scheduled to open in October 1993, will have space for 16 investigative teams.

Additionally, says Paigen, though not related to the new building, construction of four new mouse rooms to house and clean the small rodents will be completed within a year. Since the fire, a portion of...

All of this is being done, Paigen says, in anticipation of the needs of what has been termed "the decade of the mouse."

Mice And Medicine The Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit mammalian research facility, founded in 1929, is located in rural Maine between placid Frenchman's Bay and mountainous Arcadia National Park. The nearest city, Bangor, is 60 miles away.

The lab is home to 1,700 varieties of mice--which, according to lab staff, account for more than 75 percent of the world's known mouse mutations.

According to the Harvard Health Letter (17:1-8, 1992), the mouse was one of the 10 most important medical advances of 1991, along with new therapies and surgeries.

"They said the decade of the mouse had dawned," Paigen says, referring to the publication's contention that mice are going to be vitally important to future scientific investigations. "Since recovering from the fire, we can't supply the mice fast enough," adds Paigen, a former chairman of the department of genetics at the University of California, Berkeley.

The urgent need is based on the fact that many of the new chemical treatment techniques being engineered by modern medical science are first tested on mice, says Patricia Tanski, the lab's assistant director. Because the genetic makeup of mice is similar to that of humans, the rodents become easy models in biomedical studies.

For example, the lab's severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) mouse is useful in the study of muscular dystrophy, malaria, sickle-cell anemia, AIDS, and Lyme disease, largely because it is able to accept living human tissue, Tanski says.

Because of new techniques in gene therapy and newly developed mice that can accept human tissue as well as copies of human genes, Tanski says, a broad array of research areas dealing with human disease--such as cancer, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis--will require considerably more mice.

The lab's research teams breed their mice by utilizing transgenics, deliberate genetic alterations, and naturally occurring mutations, which are meticulously tracked by the staff, Tanski says.

Recovery And Recruitment As a recession grips other industries in the United States, Paigen says that the lab doesn't seem to be heavily affected. Its recovery from the fire and subsequent expansion are attributable to grants from the federal government and many private contributions, he says.

The lab's financial summary for 1990-91 shows total annual revenue (including sales, grants, and other investments) of $32.4 million; it also received more than $1 million in philanthropic donations.

Moreover, Tanski says, these figures represent the tail end of a decline in revenue following the 1989 fire. And now, she notes, after 11 months of fiscal year 1991-92, the lab may soon reach pre-fire revenue levels and maybe even exceed them.

Though the lab's recruitment effort is focused on bringing in promising young researchers, Paigen says he is not limiting the search specifically to investigators at one level of experience.

He says that overall, the lab is looking to hire researchers with experience in the areas of mammalian molecular genetics; immunology and hematology; cancer and developmental biology; and metabolic diseases, such as obesity, athero- sclerosis, and diabetes.

Tanski says that selecting the right scientist is a challenge--especially because the lab is "only looking for the best."

She adds that an important aspect of the selection process is evaluating the chemistry between a new recruit and the scientists already working at the lab. "A perfect example is Wayne Frankel," says Tanski of the lab's first recruit under the new effort. "He is moving right into research and starting several collaborative experiments."

Frankel, a molecular geneticist from Tufts University School of Medicine, says the recruitment process is elaborate and lengthy.

"A researcher wanting to come here must be committed to the mouse as a model system for human disease and disorders--and [have] some knowledge of mouse genetics," he says.

"But you don't have to be an expert; you will learn what you need to here."