Mouse engineered at UMN brings in $1 million

The mouse was engineered to help with myeloma cancer treatment.


Illustrated by Cedar Thomas

by Amie Stager

A mouse engineered to help treat a type of cancer has brought the University of Minnesota over $1 million in revenue over the last 15 years.

Researchers engineered the mouse to develop a type of bone marrow cancer called multiple myeloma to study its genetics and create better genetic testing for myeloma therapy. The mouse — whose plasma cells do not die and are used as antibodies — can help detect cancer cells in other animals and humans. 

The mouse was licensed to Cell Signaling Technology, who have been selling its antibodies for the past 15 years. This year, profits from the antibodies hit the $1 million mark, some of which has gone to the University.

Brian Van Ness, a University professor who helped develop the mouse, said it’s rare for a licensed animal to bring in that much revenue. Their goal was to engineer a way to develop tumors in order to do genetic testing that could benefit humans.

“We constructed a gene that prevented cell death,” said Michael Linden, who developed the mouse with Van Ness and is now an associate professor at the University. 

To engineer the mouse, Linden and Van Ness used bacteria to make a gene that prevents cell death. They cut pieces of DNA out of the bacteria and gave it to the University’s Mouse Genetics Laboratory, who injected it into an embryo of a female mouse so the offspring would carry the gene.

The researchers then developed a second mouse so that they could examine cells that would not die but could also develop cancerous tumors. 

“It wasn’t until we bred it with a second mouse, that caused its genes to proliferate, that we had the combination of [cell] proliferation and no death,” Van Ness said. 

This combination was significant because it allows researchers to find ways to better identify therapies for multiple myeloma patients. Since developing the mouse antibodies, the researchers have advanced their studies and are now working with human subjects. 

“Our goal is to identify the best therapy based on genetic markers,” Van Ness said. “This is a generally incurable cancer. Therapy has gotten a lot better [but] it’s not perfect and it doesn’t work for everybody.”

The mouse studies allow researchers to identify which treatment methods work best for each person based on their genetic markers. 

“Most of the antibodies sold are used to detect cells that have certain characteristics,” Van Ness said. The University receives four percent of all sales per the license agreement. 

Van Ness said that he is using the money he earns to continue his research.

The license for the engineered mouse will expire in 2021, meaning the mouse has three more years to generate money for the University, said Anne Hall, technology portfolio manager in the University’s Office for Technology Commercialization.