Mice form the basis of all biomedical research. As the quintessential model organism, they are perfect specimens in which to study all sorts of human conditions. But just because a drug performs well in mice, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll have the same result in humans. Science journalists and press releases — as translators of these findings — often fail to clearly demarcate that line.
A new Twitter account hopes to make that line much clearer. Last Friday, tweets from @justsaysinmice started making the rounds on Twitter and they quickly went viral. Every tweet — all 11 of them so far — follows the same pattern: A news story or press release with a sensational headline is tweeted out, with two simple words tacked on top: “IN MICE.”
It began rather innocently, according to James Heathers, a methodology and data scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, who runs the account. He hadn’t yet had his morning cup of coffee — which is often a source of “dumb ideas,” he told STAT — and that’s when he decided to take to Twitter.
The problem of conflating findings in mice to takeaways in humans is something that has annoyed him for a while, he said. “When you say patients when you mean mice, or when you say women when you mean female mice, you are conflating a Phase 0 study with a Phase 3 study,” Heathers said. “When you mesh the two, the difference between one versus the other is five years and a billion dollars.”
Heathers spoke with STAT about this motivation to launch @justsaysinmice, what he hopes to accomplish with it, and why it’s so wildly popular. In the four days since the account launched, it’s amassed more than 36,000 followers — 400 of which were gained during a half-hour phone call Monday with STAT. The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why is it important to highlight the difference between mice and human study findings?
There are people with breast cancer reading stories about breast cancer. There are people who are pregnant reading stories about exercising while pregnant. And these people get a great deal of advice. And if your advice to them consists entirely of, “This happened, and it happened in a particular strain of mice, and in a particular set of models” and then you just call the mice “patients,” there’s a point at which that graduates from bad reporting into some kind of misrepresentation. And it’s annoyed me for ages.
Just find any press release on EurekAlert! or Medical Xpress or one of those. And see how long [into the story] it takes you to figure out animal research. And when it directly affects people a lot of the time — in my estimation at least — it’s too damn low.
— justsaysinmice (@justsaysinmice) April 12, 2019
How did you settle on this Twitter account?
There’s lots of jokes about how easy it is to treat all these conditions in mice now. You know, “I wish I was a fat mouse, then I’d have something to cure me!” It’s something of a trope now. I certainly didn’t invent it — I’m just the idiot who made a Twitter account.
I think the account “inmice” was taken. I tried a few combinations of different things, and I thought it would be funny to only ever say “in mice.” Which is the only thing I will ever type into the account. You add that onto a lot of headlines and they get a lot more accurate. And it amuses the hell out of me, to be quite honest.
How do you actually run the account? Is it a bot of some kind?
I’m the bot. It’s my human, flawed, impaired, occasionally unpleasant, occasionally hungover judgement.
I’m choosing these articles carefully. A lot of them are great. They mention mice in the headline or they say something about animal models or they say something about the mechanism involved, and they’re perfectly straightforward, competent retelling.
But you get a combination. A lot of [the press releases] mention animals somewhere, but if it’s in the third paragraph and the language isn’t right before you get there, you know that [a lot] of people aren’t making it that far. They’re not registering that, and it’s being sold as a medical breakthrough, but it’s making its preclinical work. And it is very interesting, but the framing is not right. And when it comes to representing what it really is, it’s not particularly responsible.
Are you surprised by the popularity of this account? Have others written in offering feedback?
What I was expecting was 200 people interested in [science communication] getting together and having a giggle about it. I thought it would be one of those quiet, well-kept jokes. I mean, I made a rat the avatar. I was wondering how long this would last before someone noticed the mouse is actually a rat. That’s kind of the point. I did that on purpose. I only got to enjoy that joke for about eight hours before half a dozen people wrote in about it. I was like, “Damn it, I thought I had weeks of enjoyment!”
What I didn’t know was how many people were saying this in their head the same way that I was. There’s lots of people yelling “in mice” in their heads — it’s just more than I thought it was.
No one’s written me an email. I’ve got a few friends in Australia who are laughing at me for starting a joke account that’s infinitely more popular than I am, which if you think about it, is obviously very heartening.
What’s the takeaway for science reporting, and for the community as a whole?
I know the amount of work that goes into one of those [research] papers, and it’s something that’s probably taken a grad student five or six years. If I was a researcher who did that research, I’d be really annoyed at some of the reporting. And so, I honestly think people would prefer their work to be what it is and not what it might be sold as.
But I absolutely understand the pressures [of being a journalist]. Something like this is a series of competing pressures. If [the research] is dense and dry and you start telling me what strain of mouse it is, you’re writing things people don’t want to read. If it’s run right off the other end and it’s entirely misrepresented, then the balance swings around. I see it in any light — apart from being really funny — as participating in a balance. How accurate does [the reporting] have to be?
I hope people think it’s funny, and I hope it helps. That’s it.