The Mouse That Changed the World of Science

ur world had seen great advances in the science industry in the 20th century. People knew then that as technology advances, medicine will advance to the point that every part of the human body will grow externally and be replaced, just like the parts of a broken machine. Although these scientific theories have been debated for decades, no one has been willing to make them true.

The world was surprised when all the news outlets circulated the photo you see above in 1997. Some were excited, most were scared, and the rest were outraged at the ethical implications of such experiments. A backlash of protests against genetic engineering began in the western world.

What the world got wrong is that this experiment had nothing to do with genetic engineering. Some of the blame for this misinformation rests with some of the news outlets who used such keywords to promote this photo, despite not knowing much information about the actual experiment that began almost 10 years before the photo.

The need for an ear

Plastic surgery has advanced a lot in the last half of the 20th century, but despite this, the human ear remained the most difficult part of the human body to reconstruct due to the cartilage it is made of. Although cartilage could be made, it was very difficult to make from human tissue, so many people who had accidents with their ears had to live with a shapeless ear or no ear forever.

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This problem gave birth to the Mouse Ear Project in 1898, led by Charles Vacanti, an expert in tissue engineering and stem cells. That same year, Charles Vacanti, with the help of his brother Joseph Vacanti (an expert in tissue reconstruction), succeeded in growing a small piece of human cartilage on a biodegradable scaffold.

When the photo of the mouse came out, everyone thought the mouse’s DNA was genetically engineered to grow a human ear on its back, but there was no genetic engineering involved in this experiment, it was something much more difficult. The mouse’s organism hasn’t been overtaken by human DNA, as some protesters had claimed, here’s actually what happened.

The scaffold was made from a synthetic material called polyglycolic acid, which is commonly used in plastic surgeries. This material would dissolve into carbon dioxide and water once the tissue in the affected area regrows. The fibers of this material were formed into a loose mesh in the shape of an ear. With the integrity of 97% air, it left plenty of room for cells to fill.

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As simple as it sounds, this process took about 8 years before it was ready to be introduced into an organism to be cultured. Attaching it to human tissue wouldn’t work as it wouldn’t regenerate fast enough before the cartilage would break down. Another problem was that all immune systems in every organism would recognize this cartilage as a foreign body and try to neutralize it.

A special mouse

The mouse used for this experiment was what they called the “Nude Mouse” because it had no hair. This was due to a random mutation suffered by this species, leaving them without hair and without an immune system. The hair didn’t make much of a difference, but the lack of an immune system made this mouse special and perfect for the experiment.

Without an immune system to fight the foreign body, the formed cartilage could be filled with cells until it fully developed into a human ear. There was no specific need for human cells as long as the cells were healthy and developing fast enough. The synthetic ear cartilage was created to replicate the ear of a 3-year-old child, which would continue to develop after the transplant as the child grew.

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The artificial ear cartilage was surgically placed on the mouse’s back and left there for 12 weeks until it fully developed with living cells. The ear resembled a natural human ear by almost 90%, which was very surprising considering that this experiment did not involve genetic engineering of human DNA.

When the journal work written by the Vincent brothers came out (including photographic evidence) in 1997, the world was scared for the wrong reasons, as they didn’t bother to actually read the paper to understand how this procedure was carried out. The ear was later successfully transplanted to a child.

For those who want to see the Vincent mouse moving, here is a video from 1997.

Despite misunderstandings, this opened people’s eyes to the possibilities of the medical and scientific world. People understood that the future would surpass science fiction movies and this is proven today with patterns for printing ears using 3D printers and with a material made from human cells. If this happens today, what awaits us in another 20 years? (Leave your thoughts in the comments section).