At first glance, they don't seem like much.
They're just little black and white fish. If they were in an aquarium, they'd probably be overshadowed by the presence of a “Nemo” or other colorful fish.
But zebrafish, thousands of them, in fact, will soon be part of research conducted in Oklahoma to better understand the genes behind certain types of cancers.
A $1 million gift from the E.L. and Thelma Gaylord Foundation will support the efforts of Dr. Kimble Frazer and his team at The Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center to better understand the many intricacies of T-cell cancers.
“Fifty years ago, children with leukemia had a very low chance of survival,” Frazer said. “Today that chance has increased to 80 percent. Even though progress is being made, there are still unmet needs in the treatment of pediatric T-cell cancers.”
Most people likely don't realize the wide use of the fish in scientific research. Frazer and his fellow researchers will work out of a lab with about 12,000 zebrafish.
Like humans, zebrafish possess T-cells, a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight diseases or harmful substances; a thymus, which helps a human's body make a type of white blood cell that protects against infections; and marrow, according to the National Institutes of Health. This makes them good models for studying T-cell cancer.
Also, there seems to be little that differentiates zebrafish T-cell leukemia and human T-cell leukemia.
Not all of the zebrafish will develop cancer. The large quantity of zebrafish is needed at the lab to produce 25 to 50 fish with T-cell cancer every month.
Through their research, Frazer hopes he and his fellow researchers can use the lab to discover genes and mutations in genes that cause or predispose people to T-cell cancer. They could also find genes and mutations in genes that make T-cell cancer worse.
Also, the researchers will test new medicines using the fish. This testing could lead to a better understanding of which fish respond best to which medicines.
The next step would be testing how fish with different genes react to various medicines. This type of research could eventually lead to giving cancer patients the most effective drugs the first time around, rather than trying drug after drug until one works.
“These are things that are going to take decades,” Frazer said. “It's not like we're going to be solving that problem in three to five years. You don't know how to individualize therapy until you know how to stratify patients in the appropriate category.”