In this undated photo Michelle Burns, a technologist in The Jackson Laboratory's cryopreservation services department in Bar Harbor, looks over frozen genetic samples of research mouse strains in a cryopreservation tank. Despite facing operational challenges caused by a global coronavirus pandemic, the biomedical research lab is breeding a new line of mice specially bioengineered for research into possible vaccines for the disease. Credit: Courtesy of Jackson Laboratory

As the global coronavirus outbreak brings the world economy to a near halt, The Jackson Laboratory is starting to breed a rediscovered, specialized strain of mouse to help researchers find a vaccine for the deadly infectious disease.

The Bar Harbor-based biomedical research lab that breeds mice for researchers across the globe this month began to breed a specially developed strain of research mouse that was last used more than a decade ago to study the similar SARS coronavirus that sickened more than 8,000 people worldwide and killed 700 in 2003.

“We’re going to literally have hundreds and hundreds of mice on the ground in a very short period of time,” Cat Lutz, senior director of the lab’s mouse repository services, told NPR last week. “We will then put [them] into breeding that will basically meet the demand of the scientific community in very short order.”

The search for a strain of mouse to study the new coronavirus began late last year, after an outbreak of the disease started to spread in Wuhan, China. Scientists at The Jackson Laboratory started looking to see if a strain of research mouse that could be used to treat the disease had been developed. Normally, mice cannot be infected by coronaviruses, lab officials said. So a type of mouse would have to be specifically bioengineered to fall ill from the disease so researchers could use it to develop a relevant vaccine.

Poring through scientific studies, they learned that in 2007 researchers at University of Iowa had developed a strain of mouse used to study SARS, another type of coronavirus disease. Another study showed that COVID-19 develops in the trachea through the same cellular mechanism as SARS, making the mouse strain developed in Iowa suitable for COVID-19 research.

Researchers in Iowa didn’t have any live mice left, but they had saved sperm from the special strain, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. They sent a frozen sample to Maine, where Jackson Lab now is working to breed a new line of mice they can ship around the world.

Jackson Lab “is utilizing its state-of-the-art breeding techniques to develop and expand a new mouse colony rapidly for use in COVID-19 research,” Catherine Longley, the lab’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said Wednesday in a statement. “The laboratory will distribute them at-cost to infectious disease research facilities globally in the hope of providing the research and clinical communities with the resources needed to stem the current outbreak.”

The lab has more than 11,000 strains of research mice, most of which are kept in cryogenic storage, and breeds more than 3 million live mice each year of varying strains that it distributes to other biomedical research labs. The lab, which employs more than 1,500 people at its Bar Harbor campus and roughly 100 at its mouse breeding facility in Ellsworth, currently has no plans to suspend any of its operations, lab officials said.

“Currently, all [mouse] models are available and we are continuing to accept new orders for mice and services,” they said Wednesday.

As the lab presses to make the renewed COVID-19 mouse strain available to infectious disease researchers, it is contending with some of the obstacles created by the global response to the pandemic.

Without getting into specifics, Longely said shipping live mice to Europe and Asia has become more complicated as overseas transportation in general has decreased in volume and come under more restrictions. The lab has not run into any obstacles in supplying mice or services to domestic clients, she said, and has “a wide range of contingency plans to ensure we have the necessary supplies” needed to operate safely and effectively.

In terms of protecting the health of their workers and mice, for years employees in the breeding division have followed strict protocols for wearing personal protective clothing, gloves and masks or respiratory gear to eliminate direct physical contact with the mice, lab officials said. These continuing measures are expected to ensure that none of the new mice being bred are exposed to COVID-19 prior to being shipped to client laboratories.

Longley said lab employees who can do so have been told to work from home. Employees who cannot, such animal care technicians, are working hard to make sure the lab’s services are not interrupted.

“School closings are of course a challenge for many of our employees, as they are for people around the nation,” Longley said. “To date we have not had other constraints to our operations.”

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....