By Blair Jia
One time, I almost kissed a mouse. It was the summer before my senior year in high school. I was participating in a research program organized at Henry Ford Health System.
We were testing how antibody treatments could stall the progression of macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in Americans over 60 years old. We injected different antibodies into the eyes of AMD-afflicted mice (yes, into their eyeballs). The antibody that we were testing was the most expensive thing that I’ve ever held in a vial: Each dose cost around 1,500 dollars. Don’t forget that the mice we were working with were not the generic ones you’d find in your attic or the ones helping a chef make ratatouille at your favourite French restaurant, but genetically altered mice with a mutation that specifically induces AMD.
Long story short: each mouse was worth a lot of money, and I was entrusted with a whole litter of them. I was told to leave no mouse behind.
Before injection, each mouse needed to be anesthetized so that it wasn’t squirming around when I inserted a needle into its eyes. On experiment day, I gave one mouse a little too much anesthesia. By the time I finished injecting the antibody into his eyes, I felt no pulse as it lay in my hand. For a moment I just stood and stared in disbelief.
“It couldn’t have died,” I thought. “It just couldn’t”. Panic ensued, the stubborn side of me took over and I thought to myself, “What if I gave it CPR? It could work, right?” I looked twice to check that no one was looking, puckered my lips and leaned in towards the mouse…
…only to realize that my mouth was waaay too big.
Adrenaline kicked in. I started acting completely out of instinct. With a focus I never knew I had, I reached for a pipette and gently slid it into the mouse’s mouth. I began pipetting air into its mouth and massaging its chest with my pinky finger. Finger push, pump, finger push, pump.
The mouse jolted a little bit.
Finger push, pump, finger push, pump.
He started breathing very shallowly.
Whenever I reflect on this event, my surroundings are a blur: it’s just me, staring at the mouse, cupped in between my nitrile-gloved hands.
I play the scenario in my head, pretending that I didn’t save the mouse. I ask myself: what could have been the consequences?
Apart from losing a life, the study could have lost important data needed for completion. Thousands of dollars and countless hours of investment could have gone down the drain. More importantly, that investment had come from the millions of patients suffering from AMD, whose cause drove the research we did at the lab, and they could have been disappointed. I had always known in the back of my head that the reason why we studied AMD was so that we could help treat AMD-afflicted patients one day. But saving that mouse really put everything into perspective, made me realize why we do the work we do, for whom we were truly working for, and that sometimes, in research, failure can really mean the difference between life and death.
Blair is a U2 Quantitative Biology Student, and a senior editor at MSURJ. Illustration By Irene Xie.