President Xi Jinping has said he wants China to be a pharmaceutical powerhouse by 2025. If the country is to get there, it will first need to become a leader in another field – the breeding of lab animals.
Researchers in China use around 20 million animals a year – most of which are mice. Many are imported or bred under licence from American organisations like Charles Rivers Laboratories and Jackson Laboratory.
Yet increasingly Chinese companies are creating their own mice and rat ‘models’ – that’s animals which have been genetically modified to make them susceptible to certain illnesses that impact humans.
One such company is Shanghai Model Organisms Center (SMOC) which listed on Shanghai’s STAR Market in December last year.
SMOC’s listing document boasts that it offers over 10,000 rodent models from transgene mice with additional DNA to rats with genes omitted so they develop haemophilia or cancer.
In April GemPharmatech also went public on the STAR Market with its prospectus saying that it offers 20,000 mouse models. “The company has developed one of the world’s largest collections of mouse models to enable scientific innovation and accelerate drug development,” it said in a statement to mark its launch.
Mice and rats are widely used for drug and biomedical tests because they share large chunks of their DNA with humans, and because they reproduce quickly.
They are also small and easy to house: SMOC says it already keeps 50,000 cages and is currently in the process of doubling its capacity. Once the mice are born, they stay between three and 30 days with the supplier, depending on the age of rodent the purchasing facility requires.
During the pandemic, the international shipments of these highly prized mice were disrupted by grounded flights and heightened hygiene concerns. Yet at the same time demand was soaring as pharmaceutical companies around the world struggled to develop human-safe Covid treatments and vaccines in record time.
Against this backdrop the prices of some lab rodents rose exponentially. And in other cases, such as with mice bred to test SARS treatments, paying more was simply no help – the animals didn’t exist: sperm had to be defrosted and scientists had to wait for mouse pregnancies to take their course.
All of this has made Chinese scientists critically aware that they need to increase their own laboratory animal supply. And at the same time, the big global players in the US have started buying or working with facilities in the mainland so they can supply China’s burgeoning demand.
Charles River Laboratories – the world’s largest provider of animals for medical testing – bought two Chinese firms in the last decade and now has over 650 employees in China across five facilities.
Jackson Laboratory set up a joint venture with Beijing Anitech Biotechnology in 2020 and New York-based Taconic Biosciences entered a partnership with Guangzhou-based Cyagen Biosciences. Note that the latter sells some of its rodents for as much as $17,000 a pair.
However, some caution that regulations in China are too lax and that some of the research done on animals bred there could be compromised ethically or qualitatively.
One particularly questionable experiment carried out on live rats last year involved sewing castrated males and fertile females together so they shared a blood system. The researchers then transplanted a uterus into the male rats which allowed them to gestate live young, thanks to the presence of female hormones in their systems.
Scientists in China and beyond criticised the tests for being “unnecessarily distressing”.
“The experiment has no social value and just wasted the money taken from taxpayers,” lambasted Qiu Renzong, a bioethicist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, in an interview with Nature magazine.
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