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Germany

Bio-tech’s Commercial Frontier

As debates over human stem cell research rage, commercialisation hits the mouse-cloning world. “Mouse-making” is becoming an industry in its own right.

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Made to order

Anybody who has read Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World" finds it difficult to forget the opening scene, a tour through medical workrooms where the collective job is to reproduce humans – fundamental biology reduced to an inhuman, industrial practice, in which the goal is speedy production.

Huxley’s portrayal of a world gone mad with the promise of bio-technological achievement, published in 1932 as a warning to overzealous eugenicists, is in today’s bio-tech debate the nightmare vision of reference for those who warn against "playing God".

But these are the early days. Only a handful of scientists have declared intentions to clone humans, while most say that cloning methods and technology remain too crude to succeed with primates.

For researchers determined to overcome such practical limitations, the ethical questions remain.

We have yet to see the first cloned human, beyond the early cellular stages, so Huxley’s nightmare of industrialised reproduction seems a long way off. But it no longer seems impossible.

Commercialisation and industrialisation – the embryonic stages of mass production – are already a reality in the once-unthinkable world of mouse-cloning and genetic mutation. "Mouse-making," they call it.

Mice and more

It was nobody's evil plan. As scientists in the industry describe it, commercial mouse-making just sort of happened.

"This is a typical story of a young German bio-tech start-up," says Markus Köster, marketing director for a Hamburg-based company called Mice & More, which did about DM 1 million marks in business last year, selling mice modified to clients’ specifications.

A "transgenic" mouse is no simple widget. To make one, Mice & More’s laboratories have to produce a clone. This means preparing "ready to inject" DNA, pronuclear injection of up to 200 mouse zygotes, and implantation of 2-cell stage embryos into pseudopregnant foster mice. Once that’s done, there’s still the job of genotyping by blot analysis and finally breeding.

Traditionally, universities and research labs have done this work in-house, in preparation for their own experiments. Mice & More simply makes the process more efficient, making mice to order and delivering them, ready for whatever tests the client has in mind.

"Our clients are about half and half" – universities and private pharmaceutical companies – Köster says.

Also on the menu are "knock-in" and "knock-out" mice – in other words, mice whose genetic codes have been intentionally altered. Technically speaking, this is "transgenesis," too. It involves genomic screening, genotyping and caryotyping of cloned cells, blastocyst injections, and impregnation, birth and breeding once again.

Eizelle

Mice & More’s price per transgenic mouse depends on the complexity of the work under the microscope. The possibilities are nearly as varied as the mouse’s genetic code.

European industry

This is not just a Hamburg phenomenon, though the evolution of Mice & More was first of all a local one. It’s founders and top doctors, Christine Schulze-Garg and Wolfgang Deppert, were medical researchers at the Heinrich-Pette Institute before going into private business in 1998.

The demand was there, and with the institute’s blessing, they decided to exploit it.

"Our customers come from all parts of Europe, from within the EU and from other parts of Europe, too," says Köster.

The same thing happened to Mice & More’s partners in Estonia, Visgenyx. In the small university town of Tartu, two professors of medicine, Alar Karis and Eero Vasar, noticed that they could clone mice at much lower prices than west European labs.

So they went into business, working out of labs at the University of Tartu. They now supply mice models to Mice & More, at competitive prices.

Competition for the Hamburg and Tartu companies, meanwhile, comes from companies in Switzerland (RCC), France (Genoway) and Belgium (Eurogentec).

Brave, new...

If it seems strange, get used to it. These companies are still rather small, as in-house mouse-making remains the norm for most public and private labs. That habitual lab-culture, though, may change.

And with change, we really may live to see the day when mammalian reproduction – once only the rolling, stumbling, intimate, private domain of two animals entwined – is a matter of industrial mass-production.

Will it end with mice? If human cloning starts, even just with stem cells, might it trend that way, too?

Köster is reluctant to comment. "I would not dare give a statement on that topic," he says.

But after some prodding, he suggests an answer: "society as a whole really has to answer that question."

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