Tucked away on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine, the Jackson Laboratory (JAX) may seem removed from the pandemic roiling the world. It’s anything but. The lab is busy breeding animals for studying the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and is at the forefront of efforts to minimize the disruption of research labs everywhere.
During normal times, the 91-year-old independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution serves as a leading supplier of research mice to labs around the world. It breeds, maintains and distributes more than 11,000 strains of genetically defined mice for research on a huge array of disorders: common diseases such as diabetes and cancer through to rare blood disorders such as aplastic anemia. Scientists studying aging can purchase elderly mice from JAX for their work; those researching disorders of balance can turn to mice with defects of the inner ear that cause the creatures to keep moving in circles.But these are not normal times. The Covid-19 pandemic has skyrocketed the demand for new strains of mice to help scientists understand the progression of the disease, test existing drugs, find new therapeutic targets and develop vaccines. At the same time, with many universities scaling back employees on campus, the coronavirus crisis forced labs studying a broad range of topics to cull their research animals, many of which took years to breed and can take equally long to recoup.
CREDIT: JAMES PROVOST (CC BY-ND)
Neuroscientist Cat Lutz
The Jackson Laboratory
JAX is responding to both concerns, having raced to collect and cryopreserve existing strains of lab mice and to start breeding new ones for CoV-2 research.Overseeing these efforts is neuroscientist Cathleen “Cat” Lutz, director of the Mouse Repository and the Rare and Orphan Disease Center at JAX. Lutz spoke with Knowable Magazine about the lab’s current round-the-clock activity. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.When did you first hear about the new coronavirus?We heard about it in early January, like everyone else. I have colleagues at the Jackson Laboratory facilities in China. One of them, a young man named Qiming Wang, contacted me on February 3. He is a researcher in our Shanghai office, but he takes the bullet train to Wuhan on the weekends to be back with his family. He was on lockdown in Wuhan. He began describing the situation in China. Police were patrolling the streets. There were a couple of people in his building who were diagnosed positive for Covid-19. It was an incredibly frightening time.At the time, in the US we were not really thinking about the surge that wa