Are Moths the New Lab Mice?

By Boonsri Dickinson | September 8, 2009 2:52 pm

moth.jpgCould all those furry lab rodents soon be replaced with insects? Possibly, as Irish scientists discovered while testing how the immune systems of insects fights off a bacterial or fungal infection. It turns out insect cells respond to infections the same way mammals’ cells do, producing similarly structured enzymes to kill off intruding microbes.

When National University of Ireland’s biologist Kevin Kavanagh looked at immune cells in insects, and compared them to the white blood cells in mammals, he found that they both fought the invading pathogen through a similar chemical attack—which makes sense given that mammals and insects have immune systems that are 90 percent identical.

The researchers believe that substituting moths in the initial testing of new antimicrobial drugs could reduce the demand for mice by 80 percent. Reuters reports:

“It is now routine practice to use insect larvae to perform initial testing of new drugs and then to use mice for confirmation tests,” said Kevin Kavanagh, a biologist from the National University of Ireland, who presented his research at a Society for General Microbiology meeting in Edinburgh.

“This method of testing is quicker, as tests with insects yield results in 48 hours whereas tests with mice usually take 4 to 6 weeks. And it is much cheaper too.”

The cost savings of switching to bugs would be enormous: A caterpillar costs 16 to 32 cents, while a mouse chews up between $80 to $130 per experiment. Kavanagh tested 700 new drugs using a relatively small number of insects—the same research would have needed 14,000 mice.

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Image: flickr/ CameraShyMom

MORE ABOUT: drugs, insects, mice, research
  • Joseph Smidt

    Reminds me of the last election when a politician, whom I won’t name, was complaining we spend so much money studying flies.

    What they didn’t say was those fruit flies are one of the most cost effective ways to make real progress in ways that will really help out humans.


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