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When is a mouse a sardine?

Fred Quimby, chief of Rockefeller University's lab animal center, thinks it might be time to build public housing for the mice crowding into this city.

"As fast as we can increase the density of mouse housing, it gets filled," says Quimby, who looks after 80,000 of the critters on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

As genetic engineering grows easier, scientists around the world are breeding Mus musculus by the millions for use in research to learn more about human diseases and to test treatments.

The mouse crunch is especially severe in Manhattan, which isn't exactly bursting with extra space. Quimby says his university has at most six years, and probably less time than that, before it runs out of room for the mice that have contributed to several of the 23 Nobel prizes Rockefeller's researchers have won.

That's why six medical schools and hospitals in New York, led by Columbia University and Rockefeller, are scurrying to build a shared mouse house. The group has hired consultants to advise on the mouse house's specifications and plans to start looking for a site later this year. Planners haven't decided on the details yet but expect a 25,000-cage building would cost around $15-million.

Though mice (and rats) have found cozy accommodations in New York's subways, research mice, which can cost as much as $50 apiece, are coddled, mainly to keep infections from spreading that might impede research. The temperature in Rockefeller's mouse rooms must be no lower than 70 degrees and no higher than 74. Air is recirculated every six minutes. And before a mouse can enter the unit, it must be quarantined and tested for "every known pathogen," Quimby says. Signs in the elevator to the mouse wing warn, "Remember, Be Nice to the Mice."

Some of the newer mouse houses elsewhere have all sorts of amenities. At a Johns Hopkins University mouse house that opened in October in Baltimore, robots clean the cages. Each cage has its own ventilation, and each room has a separately filtered air supply.

The $35-million Johns Hopkins mouse house is even equipped with a security system that could deny entry to researchers who have visited less-clean animal facilities at the university earlier the same day. The capability has yet to be used. Janice Clements, the head of the university's department of comparative medicine, says a colleague joked to her, "Your mice have better conditions than my children."

To some, New York's mouse house is about the pride of a city that hates not to be No. 1. The business of finding new medicines has increasingly clustered around Boston, San Francisco and, for large pharmaceutical companies, New Jersey. The effect is self-reinforcing: Novartis AG, for instance, just opened a $750-million lab in Cambridge, Mass., because so much related research is done there already.

New York plays in the big leagues of basic university research, but even so, New York state comes in third in National Institutes of Health funding, after California and Massachusetts. "People keep saying, "There's no buzz in New York like there is in California,' " says Maria Mitchell, who is head of AMDeC, a consortium of New York academic medical institutions that is supervising the consultants' work on the mouse house.

Mitchell thinks the mouse house could help New York lure biotechnology companies. But its main purpose is to support basic research. Academic officials hope the shared mouse house will help them attract star scientists who bring in federal research dollars.

Gerald Fischbach, the dean of Columbia University's medical school, says some recruits bring up to 5,000 mice with them. The three biggest headaches in luring talent, he says, are "mice, wife and children" _ that is, finding space for the scientist's mice, a job for his or her spouse and schools for their children.

David Brenner, a specialist in liver diseases, moved last year from the University of North Carolina to a senior post at Columbia's medical school. Brenner had 500 mice in his North Carolina lab but could get space for only 200 at Columbia. Among them are mice genetically engineered to turn cells a fluorescent green when they are creating scar tissue, as happens in cirrhosis of the liver.

"It's an enormous amount of breeding to get the mice you want," Brenner says. Because of the shortage of mouse space at Columbia, he adds, "There are experiments that I'm not doing and that my colleagues aren't doing."

Those who need to put up their mice someplace can always use commercial mouse hotels, which charge as much as $1 per mouse per day, says Bill Barbo of Charles River Laboratories Inc., a Wilmington, Mass., mouse services company. In dollars per cubic foot, says Harvey Colten, the associate dean of Columbia's medical school, "it costs more to house mice than it does to have a room at the Ritz-Carlton."

The mouse boom may not last forever. Most scientists using mice get their money from the National Institutes of Health. Fischbach, the Columbia dean, says that of a typical $300,000 NIH grant to a lab director, $100,000 may be chewed up by rodents, with the rest going to pay for lab staff and equipment. The NIH budget, which Congress doubled between 1998 and 2003 to $27-billion, is expected to grow only 2 percent to 3 percent per year over the next few years amid a big federal budget deficit.

Still, Dennis Kohn, the head of Columbia's lab animal section, expects the demand for mouse space to grow 10 percent to 15 percent per year for the next few years. Columbia already has 26,000 mouse cages scattered across four sites on campus, with three mice to a cage. A new site with 10,000 cages is supposed to open next year, and Kohn thinks it will probably fill up in three to four years. He hopes the new mouse house will be ready in time to meet the demand.

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