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Zebrafish Research At Dalhousie Offers Hope For Future Cancer Treatment

They’re small fish, but they’re part of some big research into future cancer treatments.

Researchers at Dalhousie Medical School have been using tropical zebrafish to come up with new and safer ways to treat leukemia and other forms of cancer.

Why zebrafish? Surprisingly, they are genetically similar to humans in some key ways.

The zebrafish used in this research are also have a genetic mutation which makes them completely see-through. This means that researchers are able to see all the inner-workings of the fish, and track how cells move throughout their bodies.

Victoria Bentley, first-year medical student at Dalhousie University has been conducting groundbreaking research with the fish. She’s looking at faster and potentially more effective ways of treating cancer.

“I was taking human cells, flourescently labeling them, and then injecting them into the zebrafish, and studying how those cells responded to different treatment,” said Bentley.

She’s using a process called xenografting – taking something foreign, in this case human cancer cells, and putting it into another animal, in this case the zebrafish.

Bentley has focused her research on T-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia, or T-ALL. This rare form of cancer has a lower cure rate than many other cancers.

Dr. Jason Berman is a pediatric hematologist oncologist at the IWK Health Centre, and an associate professor at Dalhousie University. He’s working with Bentley on her research.

“Being a pediatric oncologist I’m interested in finding better cures for childhood cancer,” said Dr. Berman.

Dr. Graham Dellaire is the Director of Research and an associate professor at Dalhousie Univeristy. Dr. Dellaire focuses his research on solid tumor cancers, like breast cancer and prostate cancer. He is also finding hope in these tiny tropical fish.

“Many of the pathways involved in solid tumors and involved in leukemia are very similar, and so we go back and forth between the two systems and we learn from that,” said Dr. Dellaire.

“We’re able to track the cells within the fish, we can look at things like metastasis, we can look at blood vessel growth, and we know that the growth of blood vessels into a tumor is a bad thing, that promotes the growth of the tumor and blocking that blood vessel growth can help shrink the tumor,” said Dr. Dellaire.

Though the research is still in beginning stages, the team is confident that they’re on their way to finding new, better treatments for cancer.

“I was able to take a known chemotherapy agent which is known to cause cardiac damage, and pair it with a protectant agent, and show that I could prevent the cardiac damage while still killing the leukemia cells,” explained Bentley.

Bentley received the D. A. Gillis entrance scholarship into Dalhousie Medical School, and is also nominated for the Governor General’s Award for her published research with the zebrafish.