Rat City: DOOR lab Featured In Canadian Documentary

May 19, 2023

Real science involves asking radical questions. For instance, is conducting experiments on inbred rats living in laboratories giving us the best results? Could the study of city rats yield more effective mental health treatments for humans? And if so, how do we conduct those studies? The documentary “Rat City” featuring Principal Investigator Dani Dumitriu, MD, PhD, and several members of the DOOR lab, begins to reveal some answers. 

The film, which aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 2022, “dives down the rathole to uncover remarkable superpowers that make brown rats the evolutionary heroes of the animal kingdom”. Soon to be released in the United States, the documentary showcases the work Dani and DOOR lab are doing to improve mental health care by understanding the resilience of wild rats [hyperlink to this project on the research page].

Urban rats may hold the key to the next breakthrough in mental health research because, unlike their lab-bound cousins, wild rats live in their natural habitat and are highly genetically diverse. Studying the stress responses of these resilient wild animals may contribute more effective mental health treatments than only studying inbred lab rats living in artificial environments. Also, wild rats only live around humans, even sticking to specific neighborhoods that map onto human neighborhoods, possibly because of food preferences. 

“We’re not trying to replace lab animal models with wild rats,” Dani clarifies. “We”’re trying to find the bridge that translates findings between lab experiments and human applications. It's like there is an opaque barrier in the way. Understanding wild rats could help that barrier become more transparent.” 

However, researchers know very little about these wild, urban rats who co-exist with humans, and few labs are doing this unique work. Enter DOOR Lab, where Dani has made this work an area of focus. Early on, she began the exciting process of capturing and studying wild rats, but suddenly had to halt operations in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Thankfully, collaborator Kaylee Byers, PhD, a wildlife health biologist and “rat detective” in Vancouver, Canada, had already captured, chipped, and collected samples from hundreds of wild rats. She sent stool samples from over 400 wild rats to the DOOR lab which are now being analyzed for hormones associated with stress (corticosterone) and resilience (DHEA) responses. The results, along with parallel lab studies, may show why some wild urban rats cope with stress better than others. This may help close the “translational gap” between basic science and clinical applications by bridging the gap between lab rats and their wild counterparts..  

“We’re the only lab in the world that studies stress responses in wild rats,” says Dr. Dumitriu. “This film showcases the uniqueness of our science and innovative approach to pursuing more effective treatments that better address the mental health crisis.”