Saturday, June 28, 2008

Don't believe everything you read

Sara Latta brought this photo to my attention. I'm not going to reproduce it here. It's a prime example of what happens when people place their own agendas ahead of scientific accuracy.

On October 11, 1999, a nude mouse appeared in a full-page ad in The New York Times, sporting what appeared to be a human ear growing out of its back. The caption described it as “an actual photo of a genetically engineered mouse.” A group protesting unregulated genetic research had placed the inflammatory ad, but it was not exactly accurate. The mouse was not genetically engineered at all. It was a normal nude mouse. Nor was the ear human. It was a product of the laboratory of Charles Vacanti.

Vacanti wanted to improve replacement options for patients who have lost an outer ear (or other cartilage-based structure) due to injury, burns, or birth defects. Plastic implanted under the skin can become infected and is not very durable. An ear sculpted from the patient’s cartilage may not be shaped satisfactorily. Vacanti used a synthetic polymer, similar to that used in dissolvable sutures, to sculpt an outer ear. He then implanted it under the skin of a nude mouse, along with cartilage cells from the legs of calves. Because nude mice do not reject tissue from other animals, the calf cartilage cells could survive and grow in the nude mouse.

The mouse's body provided the necessary environment for the cartilage cells to attach to the polymer scaffold, eventually replacing the scaffold, which dissolved away. The result was cartilage in the perfect shape of a human ear.

Although the result was bizarre-looking, especially in the already bizarre-looking hairless mouse, it was very effective. The technique has since been used successfully in humans, producing replacement cartilage structures from human cartilage cells on polymer scaffolds implanted into the patient’s body.

The mouse was later to be called the Vacanti Mouse or the "earmouse." Unfortunately, its bizarre appearance was used to promote the anti-science agenda of the group that ran the ad. Take a photo out of context, add some half-truths and outright lies, and you can convince the public of almost anything.

That is why we need to promote scientific literacy.