Cambridge gaining ground in Nobel rat race

Deputy News Editor 15 January 2009

Revolutionary research involving mice, which won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology in 2007, has been mimicked by a team of Cambridge University scientists working on rats. This research has the potential to steer the course of genetic research in a different direction over the coming years.

Austin Smith’s team at Cambridge University and Qi-Long Ying’s team at the University of Southern California are the first scientists in the world to isolate the most versatile type of stem cell from rat embryos.

This should make it simple to create fully grown rats lacking certain genes after they have been ‘knocked out’ and has major implications for research modelling conditions like Cancer, addiction, high blood pressure, cystic fibrosis, diabetes and autoimmune diseases in humans.

Mario R. Capecchi, Oliver Smithies and Martin J. Evans (a former Cambridge undergraduate) won a Nobel Prize in 2007 for the part they played in creating ‘knockout’ mice. Knockout mouse models have proved to be immensely successful in modeling genetic diseases and have brought valuable insight into conditions such as muscular dystrophy and cancer that would not have been possible otherwise.

Austin Smith, Medical Research Council Professor and Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research at Cambridge University spoke to TCS about the research potential;

“Rats are the species of choice for investigations of complex physiology, disease and pharmacology. Rat embryonic stem (ES) cells open the door to application of advanced genome engineering techniques to create sophisticated disease models.”

Methods used when isolating embryonic stem cells resulting in the creation of knockout mice have not worked on larger rodents until now.

He also told TCS that Rat models are more appropriate for the research his laboratory wished to pursue;

“We are more interested in developing better tests for the tissue repair capacity of differentiated ES cells. An obvious example is Parkinson’s disease for which studies in the rat are much more relevant to the human condition than mouse experiments.”

The isolation of rat embryonic stem cells is especially promising as rats are generally more physiologically similar to humans than mice and can shed light on answers that have not been found in typical mouse models used to research disease.

Methods used when isolating embryonic stem cells, resulting in the creation of knockout mice, have not worked on larger rodents until now. When the news first broke, Qi-Long Ying stated;

‘Without ES cells, it is impossible to perform genetic modifications for the creation of the disease model want.

“The research direction of many labs around the world will change because of ES cells.’

Sita Dinanauth

Deputy News Editor