Mice from Maine Facilitate US-China Biomedical Research Collaboration

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by Olivia Waring
Researchers at the Sacramento branch of the Jackson Laboratory transfer a mouse specimen between containers. Image: The Jackson Laboratory.

US-China relations, long the purview of ambassadors, dignitaries, and CEOs, are being mediated by an unlikely new set of actors: laboratory mice.

The Jackson Laboratory, headquartered in Bar Harbor, Maine, is the world’s leading supplier of laboratory mice. More than 3 million specimens – belonging to 7,500 different carefully tailored strains – are distributed annually to 56 countries. This year, for the first time since its establishment in 1929, Jackson Lab has unveiled plans to follow its mice overseas.

On June 7, representatives of the Jackson Laboratory and Wuhan Frasergen Bioinformatics Co., Ltd. – a prominent genomics institute in northern China – signed an MOU establishing a joint research facility in Biolake Science Park, Hebei. Frasergen officials have promised to set aside one billion yuan (US $160 million) for the project. The ultimate aim of this joint venture is to develop a vast “biorepository” of cancer strains: a library of sorts, where the shelves are stocked not with books, but with mice that have been transfected with human tumors. Studying these specimens will allow researchers to develop highly personalized treatment regimens for the people hosting these same malignant growths.

The partnership constitutes a welcome development for both parties. The Chinese research community expects to benefit greatly from the technologies pioneered and honed by the Maine-based facility. For Jackson Lab, international expansion affords the opportunity to vastly increase the scale of its operation: with access to a whole new population of patients, its database of cancer-bearing mice will witness dramatic growth, thus accelerating the pace of drug-discovery.

Jackson Lab is highly regarded in the US, having achieved recognition as an official Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute. Experiments involving Jackson-bred mice have led to 26 Nobel Prizes and numerous advances in oncology, immunology, and organ transplantation. In addition to serving as a leader of the American scientific community, Jackson Lab is an economic pillar in its state of origin, enriching the Maine economy by $380 million in 2013 alone.

Despite these successes at home, company officials see significant growth potential overseas, as domestic STEM funding faces continued cutbacks. Charles Hewitt, current Vice President of the lab, notes that the PRC’s investment in biomedical research is soaring by 15-20% every year. Tapping into this enthusiasm – and financial wherewithal – will doubtless be a boon for both Jackson Laboratory and the field of oncology as a whole, perhaps paving the way for future international collaborations.

Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.