“Golden Girls” Mice Are Key to Longevity Research
There’s been a heightened interest in longevity research. Some have noted that older billionaires like Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson and others have been investing heavily into biopharma companies focused on aging and aging-related diseases. Whether that’s true, or just these business and money-savvy individuals recognize interesting and potentially lucrative investment opportunities, is a matter for debate. But there’s clearly a lot of interesting research going on in the longevity field.
Today, for example, Juvenescence, a biopharma company focused on aging and age-related disease, made a $6.5 million equity financing and collaboration deal with BYOMass, which focuses on metabolism control related to aging. In addition, Margaret Jackson, the chief executive officer of BYOMass, joined Juvenescence as vice president, Head of Preclinical Research and Development.
Even more fundamental, however, is a Wall Street Journal article with the clever headline, “This Old Mouse: ‘Golden Girls’ Unlock the Mysteries of Aging.”
The story profiles the research of Gary Churchill, a geneticist at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. Specifically, the 2016 death of two laboratory mice, Grace and Blanche, who were second cousins, but for a time were believed to be the oldest living mice in the world prior to their death. Affectionately known as the “Golden Girls,” Grace was four years and nine months old when she died, the rough equivalent of 150 human years.
No mice have been known to live five years. “We have 1,000 more Graces in the pipeline,” Churchill told the WSJ. “We’re gunning for five years.”
In fact, the Methuselah Foundation awards an annual Methuselah Mouse Prize (Mprize), for the oldest-ever mouse, and one for the most successful approach to rejuvenating the health of old mice. The Methuselah Foundation’s strategic goal is “Making 90 the New 50 by 2030.”
But Grace and Blanche and their enormous extended family are not ordinary mice. The Jackson Laboratory is a nonprofit specializing in research and mouse production. In attrition to its mammalian genetics headquarters in Bar Harbor, JAX, as it’s known, has a Genomic Medicine Institute in Farmington, Conn., and facilities in Sacramento, Calif. and Ellsworth, Maine.
JAX was founded in 1929 as a 501c3 nonprofit biomedical research institution with a National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center. It employs more than 2,100 people, and its goal is to discover precise genomic solutions for disease. JAX notes that to date, 26 Nobel prizes have been associated with Jackson Laboratory research, education programs and resources.
Its research goals are broad, including addiction, aging, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, heart research, immune disease, the microbiome, obesity, rare disease, regenerative medicine, and reproduction and infertility.
Part of what is being done with the mice is that older mice, which means between the ages of 18 and 24 months, are tested in mazes to test cognitive abilities. The mice are then put on low-calorie diets to determine if they live longer—they do—and also test them in group living arrangements to evaluate the impact of social networks.
Another researcher, Richard Miller, associate director for research at the University of Michigan Geriatrics Center, is researching how to slow mice aging using drugs. His center has about 5,000 mice, most born and raised there. Yoda, a long-lived mutant Snell dwarf mouse, was the first of his to reach the age of four years.
The WSJ writes, “Although aged mice are important for research, supply is limited and cost is high. The National Institute on Aging, which has an Aged Rodent Colonies Handbook, provides older mice for projects directly related to aging, but limits researchers to 20 a month, per NIA grant. All mice must be ordered through its online Rodent Ordering System; replacements are offered for animals that arrive dead or die within 48 hours. Those with a ‘scruffy or unkempt appearance,’ which is often normal with aging in mice, won’t be replaced.”
JAX distributes about 3 million mice per year, all “shelf-ready.” But elderly mice are more expensive. For example, a 78-week-old female mouse from JAX runs $307.14 compared to $74.23 for a 25-week-old one. The Jackson Lab also offers “just-in-time service,” meaning they raise mice to a specific age and then deliver them.
Churchill notes that, although aged mice are expensive, the scientific contributions are priceless. He told the WSJ, “The big question we have is: Do animals and people age at different rates?”
He doesn’t mean comparing people to mice, but rather, whether individuals (of their own species) age differently. But aging mice, such as Yoda, Blanche and Grace and all their cousins, are helping find out why.
Meanwhile, the list of companies focused on longevity and aging grows, including Unity Biotechnology, Google’s Calico, Elevian, Finch Therapies, and many others.