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Rat Race
Scientists are using virtual rats to identify genes responsible for diseases – and to find cures.

Illustration by Firecatcher

There are two kinds of people: Those for whom the phrase “scientific research” induces apathy and those who scooch up to the table, open a New Glarus Spotted Cow and eagerly discuss the known and unknown.     

Fifty scientists who are gathered on Discovery World’s patio one rare, temperate July afternoon belong to the latter group. They include 40 men and 10 women from 12 universities and research institutions in four countries. For two days, they examined the detailed science of what one attendee calls the most important science research project in the country, one with enormous implications to human health – the Virtual Physiological Rat Project (VPR), housed at the Medical College of Wisconsin and funded by a $13 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

At one table is Edmund Crampin, a systems biology group leader at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, University of Auckland, in New Zealand. “The VPR picks up where the human genome left off,” he says. The genome provided the letters; the VPR aims to construct words and sentences to explain disease.   

With the help of rats, the VPR hopes to deepen our understanding of how genes, physiology and multiple variables interact to cause disease. (There are no single genetic markers for most diseases.) To do this, MCW researchers are building computerized models to simulate rat physiology and linking molecular genetics to whole-organism function, such as the cardiovascular system. If all goes well, the researchers will virtually manipulate genes, genetically engineer real rats and seek out treatments.

The VPR’s lead man is Dan Beard, a disarmingly personable professor of physiology at MCW. Not only is Beard the first in his family to graduate from college, he’s accomplished a rare feat for a young researcher: securing an NIH grant. (Young in the science world meaning 41.) The agency only funds about 10 percent of submissions. “It’s particularly hard for young people,” says Jim Bassingthwaighte, professor of biomathematics and radiology at the University of Washington. “They are in competition against old people like me.” 

Although Beard is the project’s lead, the execution of the process takes dozens of minds. Like the one that belongs to Stig Omholt, an ex-dairy farmer who is now a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and director of the Center for Integrative Genetics. He glances at the mingling physiologists, engineers, mathematicians, physicists, chemists and biochemists, all of whom voluntarily joined the VPR. “We all make small contributions to the cathedral,” he says.

During the conference, scientists dissected every issue relating to the virtual rat project, including objections to using animals for scientific research. “You hear people criticizing science research on animals,” says Crampin, recalling Sarah Palin mocking fruit fly research as irrelevant to humans. (Humans share 75 percent of their DNA with fruit flies, 90 percent with rats.) “Most people would really rather not know how food and medicine is made.” 

The VPR is a complicated undertaking, and it might be years before the results are applicable to humans. Omholt and Crampin debate where the project will lead. 

“Behind complexity will be simplicity,” predicts Omholt.  

 “I think you’re wrong,” counters Crampin. “I think behind complexity is more complexity.”

 “I hope I live long enough to see you wrong, young man!” Omholt says, laughing. 

Spirits high, the two men sit with their Spotted Cows and chew over whether science provides final answers, if the VPR will succeed and whether our deepest discoveries await.

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