Zebrafish accelerate research against pancreatic cancer

April 3, 2015 by Steve Yozwiak, Translational Genomics Research Institute
Zebrafish accelerate research against pancreatic cancer
TGen's Zebrafish lab is headed by Dr. Haiyong Han (far right), head of TGen's Pancreatic Cancer Research Unit.

For more than a decade, a glassy striped fish smaller than a door key has proved an important model organism in scientific research. Named for the uniform horizontal stripes on the side of its body, the zebrafish is a tiny creature that packs a punch in terms of biological similarities with the human.

Today, scientists at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) are using to accelerate investigations of , the nation's fourth-leading cause of cancer-related death.

TGen researchers believe the zebrafish can aid in the search for therapeutics that could help slow down, and even reverse, the growth and spread of cancer in pancreatic cancer patients.

Amazingly, this tiny fish shares about 70 percent of the genetic code of humans, has genetic similarities for the overwhelming majority of genes that cause human disease, grows to maturity in a matter of weeks, and are relatively inexpensive to manage.

Importantly, because of their transparent scales, they can provide a window into the real-time development of cancer tumors.

"With a microscope, you can see what is wrong without having to dissect it," said Dr. Haiyong Han, a TGen Associate Professor, head of TGen's Pancreatic Cancer Research Unit. "You can see the tumor just by looking into the fish."

Zebrafish are vertebrates, so they have organs similar to people, including a pancreas, an organ near the stomach that produces digestive juices and several key hormones.

Genes are responsible for creating proteins. An altered gene disrupts the associated proteins, including those that lead to cancer. By studying altered genes in zebrafish, TGen researchers can monitor the initiation, growth and fatal effects of , including their spread to other organs.

Even though they are small, zebrafish are relatively complex organisms, allowing researchers to use them to mimic problems, and solutions, in people. And because zebrafish achieve maturity within about 3 months, researchers can compress the time otherwise needed to study tumor development.

"Where it would take months or years in a human, it only takes days or weeks to see the tumor growth in zebrafish," said Dr. Daniel D. Von Hoff, TGen's Distinguished Professor and Physician-In-Chief. "This is going to be of tremendous benefit for our scientific investigations, and ultimately for our patients."

Care of the zebrafish is overseen by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC, which reviews all testing procedures and ensures the humane treatment of the fish throughout their lifecycle.

This year, nearly 49,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and more than 40,000 will die from this disease. Median survival for patients with advanced disease is less than 6 months following diagnosis, and the 5-year survival rate is less than 6 percent for all patients.  

Pancreatic cancer's lethal nature stems from its propensity to rapidly spread to distant organs. Because there is no early screening test, it usually is not diagnosed until its late stages, often when surgery is no longer an option, making it difficult to treat.

Dr. Han will monitor the growth and dissemination of tumors in the zebrafish and, specifically, look at the epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), in which epithelial cells gain migratory and invasive characteristics.

This should help TGen investigators to better understand how pancreatic cancer invades local tissue, causing pain, and how it spreads to other organs - especially to the liver and lungs - which often is the actual cause of death in pancreatic cancer patients.

And because of low costs associated with maintaining zebrafish, investigators can conduct multiple studies in relatively short periods of time.

Explore further: Eliminating cellular stroma could enable anti-cancer drugs to penetrate tumor tissues, improve survival

Related Stories

Eliminating cellular stroma could enable anti-cancer drugs to penetrate tumor tissues, improve survival

February 24, 2015
Like a stealth jet cloaks itself from radar, cancer cells cloak themselves within tumors by hiding behind a dense layer of cellular material known as stroma.

Promising new strategy to halt pancreatic cancer metastasis

March 2, 2015
Pancreatic cancer and its metastases might have their days numbered, according to a study published in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.

What makes pancreatic cancer so aggressive? New study sheds light

January 15, 2015
New research from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center helps explain why pancreatic cancer is so lethal, with fewer than a third of patients surviving even early stage disease.

Researchers learning more about deadly pancreatic cancer

January 30, 2015
(HealthDay)—Scientists are working to find new ways to treat pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest types of cancer in the United States.

New therapy for pancreatic cancer patients shows promising results

June 5, 2014
A clinical trial conducted by researchers at the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center Clinical Trials, a partnership between Scottsdale Healthcare and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), showed that a new drug ...

Researchers identify pancreatic cancer patients who benefit from personalized treatment

February 26, 2015
Cancer researchers at Indiana University report that about 15 percent of people with pancreatic cancer may benefit from therapy targeting a newly identified gene signature.

Recommended for you

Researchers identify new genetic disorder

September 21, 2018
Researchers from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and physicians from Spectrum Health have identified for the first time in a human patient a genetic disorder only previously described in animal models.

Test could detect patients at risk from lethal fungal spores

September 20, 2018
Scientists at The University of Manchester have discovered a genetic mutation in humans linked to a 17-fold increase in the amount of dangerous fungal spores in the lungs.

Researchers identify a new cause of childhood mitochondrial disease

September 20, 2018
A rapid genetic test developed by Newcastle researchers has identified the first patients with inherited mutations in a new disease gene.

Why some human genes are more popular with researchers than others

September 18, 2018
Historical bias is a key reason why biomedical researchers continue to study the same 10 percent of all human genes while ignoring many genes known to play roles in disease, according to a study publishing September 18 in ...

Class of neurological disorders share 3-D genome folding pattern, study finds

September 18, 2018
In a class of roughly 30 neurological disorders that includes ALS, Huntington's Disease and Fragile X Syndrome, the relevant mutant gene features sections of repeating base pair sequences known as short tandem repeats, or ...

Researchers resolve decades-old mystery about the most commonly mutated gene in cancer

September 18, 2018
The most commonly mutated gene in cancer has tantalized scientists for decades about the message of its mutations. Although mutations can occur at more than 1,100 sites within the TP53 gene, they arise with greatest frequency ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.