Researchers Urged to Go Light on Mouse Antibodies

Biomedical researchers should produce most types of monoclonal antibodies using methods that don't require killing mice, according to a report from a National Academy of Sciences panel. But the report argues that the use of mice is essential in some cases and should not be banned. Observers say that the committee's report, released yesterday, could help prevent a long-running feud from escalating into a high-stakes legal fight.

Two animal rights groups have threatened to sue the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to prevent U.S. researchers from routinely using the "mouse ascites" method of producing antibodies, which involves injecting mice with fast-growing cancer cells engineered to secrete a desired immune-system protein. The proteins have a wide range of uses, from probing tissue samples to attacking cancer cells. Seeking an outside opinion on how researchers should be manufacturing them, NIH last year asked the National Research Council to convene a blue-ribbon panel to assess the alternatives to using mice.

The report, from an 11-member panel led by pathologist Peter Ward of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, estimates that alternatives--such as growing the antibodies in plastic flasks--are available about 90% of the time. And it concludes that researchers should soon adopt "tissue culture methods ... as the routine method unless there is a clear reason they cannot be used." The panel opposed a European-style ban, however, noting that some antibodies--such as one widely used to prevent transplant patients from rejecting new organs--resist being raised in a flask. And it said that culturing might be too expensive for researchers who need only small quantities. "This is not the time to abandon the ascites method," says Ward.

The conclusions have made one animal rights activist cautiously optimistic that a courtroom showdown can be avoided. "It's a mixed bag, but the recommendations do address many of our concerns," says John McArdle, a former animal researcher now at the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. McArdle says that he and his allies will decide next week whether they will go to court to force NIH to speed up the use of alternatives.