Lab is Working to Build a Better Mouse Camera

A new research project could give scientists better understanding of human biology by giving mice a little wiggle room.

The Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility is working with several other research institutions to create a system that would let laboratory mice move around while undergoing biomedical imaging.

If successful, the technique could mean real-time, high-resolution, three-dimensional medical images of patients, a big bonus for researchers studying ailments such as Parkinson's disease, where patients may not be able to hold perfectly still.

The system would work by using lasers to track subjects as imaging is being conducted. Using infrared reflectors attached to different parts of the body or dual laser beams that scan the subject as imaging is being performed, researchers could combine data to determine specific locations of biomedical readings.

Jefferson Lab is developing the cameras that would do the imaging.

The process would benefit basic research, such as developing drugs for cancer detection and treatment, said Drew Weisenberger, Jefferson Lab staff scientist and principal investigator of the research project.

"You can tell the humans to stay still," he said. "You can't tell the mice that."

Mice are the focus because the current method of evaluating biomedical data is to track a radioactive drug's effects on the lab animals. That means either restraining or anesthetizing the mice, and both methods come with complications, Weisenberger said.

With restraints, mice can become stressed. On the other hand, drugging the animal means introducing new chemicals the mouse wouldn't produce naturally. Both situations mean contending with skewed data. Plus, anesthetizing mice often can lead to death.

The real impact of those concerns becomes clear when you consider how important mice are in medical research. Millions are used for everything from brain studies to testing for cancer. The reason is fairly simple: There's a lot of information out there about mice, said Eric Bradley, a biology professor at the College of William and Mary who has worked with Jefferson Lab using mice.

"The mouse is probably the best model we have for several diseases," Bradley said. "It's not that we have such a strong [genetic similarity.] The genetics of the mouse is terribly well understood."

So far, though, retrieving such data means using drugs or restraints because researchers can't afford movement, said Michael Paulus, a member of the research team at Oak Ridge National Lab, which is developing lasers used to track the animals.

"Oftentimes, you are trying to see things that are very small. You're looking for subtle differences," he said. "What could be a bright part or spot becomes a blurry, ill-defined spot."

That could change, thanks to the Department of Energy-sponsored project. The $1.3 million grant joins Jefferson Lab, Oak Ridge National Lab, the Johns Hopkins University, University of Sydney and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, Australia.

Ideally, researchers will one day send mice to centers such as Jefferson Lab, where imaging can be done and the results returned as a CD or e-mail message.

"You're not complicating the system," Weisenberger said. "You're not interfering with the animal."