Public Release: 

ORNL Mice Helping Researchers Isolate, Identify Causes Of Cancer

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- Mice may have a reputation for being quiet, but they're telling researchers at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) something about the causes of leukemia, lymphoma and other illnesses in people.

"Lymphomas that develop spontaneously in the mouse are very useful for our studies because mouse leukemias and lymphomas are very similar to human leukemias," said Monica Justice, a genetics researcher in ORNL's Biology Division. "In addition, mouse lymphomas have genetic characteristics that allow us to isolate the genes involved in the development of the cancer."

Included in ORNL's inventory of 120,000 mice are 1,000 strains, some of which were originally bred to study the genetics of cancer.

"Some of these mouse strains have a high spontaneous incidence of lymphoma and/or leukemia," Justice said.

When these mouse strains were first developed, scientists didn't know the reason the mice developed leukemia. Now, however, Justice and colleagues know that the mice get cancer because of murine leukemia retroviruses.

"One way these retroviruses can cause cancer is to integrate near and change the normal function of cancer-causing genes," Justice said. Molecular probes for the retroviruses provide researchers with "tags" to identify genes that cause cancer. By studying the normal role of these genes that ultimately cause cancer in mice, Justice hopes to understand their role in cancerous growth when they are altered by the retrovirus.

In addition to her work with murine leukemia retroviruses, Justice has discovered a direct correlation between Chediak Higashi Syndrome in humans to what's simply called "beige" in mice. In people, the syndrome causes partial albinism, an increased susceptibility to infections and a predisposition to non-malignant lymphoma. Beige mice have the same clinical symptoms as humans.

This similarity in diseases, along with comparative mapping studies, led Justice and collaborators to trace the mouse gene in an effort to learn the cause of the human disease. Justice and colleagues identified the disease gene in mice and used the mouse gene to identify the human gene. This information has led to the discovery of the cause of clinical symptoms in humans.

Because of the genetic similarity between mice and humans, researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the development of certain human cancers, to earlier diagnoses and to better treatment strategies.

This research was funded by the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.

ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram research facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corp. You may read other press releases from Oak Ridge National Laboratory or learn more about the lab if you have access to the Internet. You can find our information on the World Wide Web at


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