Embryonic stem cell creation opens door for genetically engineered rats

December 26, 2008

The essential ingredient for making genetically engineered versions of rats have finally been created after decades of effort in the field. Twenty-seven years ago, researchers thought that genetically engineered rats would follow quickly after the development of the technique in mice. Scientists have long been able to alter the DNA in mouse embryonic stem cells, routinely creating mice with missing, added or altered genes. But the same techniques have not worked in rats, whose larger size can make them better models for certain disorders in humans. Although some techniques do exist for genetically manipulating rats, they are far more limited than those used in mice.

Researchers led by Austin Smith of the University of Cambridge, UK, and Qi-Long Ying of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, now report in Cell that they have derived rat embryonic stem (ES) cells that can transfer their genome into the sex cells of a growing rat. Smith’s team has also shown that the rat ES cells can be genetically manipulated. Neither has produced a genetically engineered rat yet. But Stem Cell Sciences, a company Smith co-founded, is already in discussions with pharmaceutical companies and animal providers to create and distribute knockout rats, says the company’s chief executive Alastair Riddell. Ying says that the first genetically engineered rat from ES cells could be born within as little as six months.

The cost of keeping laboratory rats is about ten times as great as for mice. But rats are favored in someĀ  medical experiments as mouse spinal cords and other organs are so small that they make cell-transplant studies very difficult. Moreover, rats are capable of more complex behaviour, making them better suited for studying some brain diseases.


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