The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice

The Patchwork Mouse

by Joseph Hixson
Anchor Press, 240 pp., $7.95

“Can the leopard change his spots?” the prophet asked (Jeremiah, 13: 23), clearly not expecting to be told he can. Nor, indeed, can mice, except under the rather discreditable circumstances now to be outlined.

It is a well-attested truth of observation that except under special and unusual circumstances skin from one mouse or human being will not form a permanent graft after transplantation to another mouse or another human being; for although such a graft heals into place it soon becomes inflamed and ulcerated, and eventually dries up and sloughs off. The exceptional circumstances are: in human beings, when donor and recipient are identical twins, and in mice when prolonged inbreeding (e.g., upward of twenty successive generations of brother/sister mating) has made the mice so closely similar to each other genetically that they almost could be identical twins.

This being so; great surprise was caused in the world of transplantation when Dr. William Summerlin, a member of the largest and in many ways the most important cancer research center in the world, the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, with the backing of his chief, Dr. Robert A. Good, made known in 1973 his surprising claim that a comparatively simple procedure—“tissue-culture”—could make a skin graft or a corneal graft from a member of the same or even of a different species acceptable to an organism that would otherwise have rejected it. This claim was specially important because grafting skin from one human being to another has never entered clinical practice, in spite of encouraging successes with the transplantation of kidneys, livers, and sometimes even hearts. Either skin is specially well able to excite the immunological reaction that leads to its own rejection, or it is specially vulnerable to it. This inability to graft new skin from one person to another is the greatest current shortcoming of the surgery of replacement and repair, because the replacement of skin is the only adequate treatment of extensive burns or excoriating wounds.

Summerlin’s treatment, the technical details of which, in spite of exhortation from his director, he seemed suspiciously reluctant to impart to his colleagues, amounted in principle to very little more than the incubation of the intended graft in a suitable nutrient medium outside the body for a matter of days or weeks. This seemed an astonishingly simple solution of a problem no one else had solved, although many of us had been trying since about 1940.

Unfortunately, experienced biologists in other laboratories, and eventually workers in the same institute, were unable to confirm Summerlin’s findings, so that Summerlin eventually had recourse to faking his results to convince his now uneasy chief. He touched up his grafts with a felt pen, so simulating dark skin grafts on white mice. He also claimed that operations had been done which had not been done. The formal end of the story came in 1974 when Dr. John L. Ninnemann and Dr. Good published a paper that in effect demolished the whole story.

This was all…

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