Updated: April 9, 2011 8:11PM
WORCESTER, Mass. — The humble zebrafish is being used by scientists for a not-so-humble purpose: to help cure cancer and other diseases.
The tiny zebrafish are popular with researchers because they’re transparent and develop rapidly. For instance, scientists say they can view a complete cardiovascular system in embryos in less than two days.
And the cells responsible for coloring both human skin and the zebrafish’s dark stripes, melanocytes, are also where melanoma originates. Studying them in zebrafish has led to a possible breakthrough in cancer research.
Professor Craig Ceol of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and scientists at Children’s Hospital in Boston singled out the gene responsible for promoting melanoma in the fish after studying more than 2,100 tumors from more than 3,000 zebrafish.
The researchers found the same gene at high levels in 70 percent of sample human tumors, indicating it may linked to the formation of most human melanomas.
The research, published last month in the journal Nature, could help develop drugs to fight skin cancers.
Other scientists at UMass are studying the zebrafish’s formation of blood vessels, arteries and veins to learn why vascular problems develop.
Researcher Nathan Lawson said the scientists study normal development and then agitate the genes to create mutant cells for study.
“Then we go back and figure out what genes were affected,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how blood vessels become different.”
Lawson say the transparent embryos develop in a dish externally, making them easy to observe with a microscope.
“Another major benefit is that we have a complete cardiovascular system in 36 hours with the heart beating and blood pumping around,” he told the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester.
A UMass team led by Charles Sagerstrom is using zebrafish to study the nervous system.
“The question we ask is how in embryos some cells are set aside to become neurons,” Mr. Sagerstrom said. “Perhaps if we can learn how an embryo makes a neuron, maybe we can learn to make a neuron.”
Sagerstrom said when he started using zebrafish for research about a decade ago, there were just a handful of labs studying the animal.
Now, there are seven just at UMass, and about 1,000 such labs worldwide.