foundations, Health, Medical, News

Wayne State has fishy answer to fighting leukemia


There is something really fishy about Wayne State University’s announcement that it may have an answer to fighting leukemia. In this case fishy is good.

The answer may lie in zebrafish.

Studying those fish will help researchers identify the genetic and environmental factors that in combination may lead to the development of childhood leukemia. Acute leukemias are the most common form of childhood cancer in industrialized countries.

Kids Without Cancer, founded by a group of parents whose children received cancer treatment at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, has committed $356,000 to Wayne State University School of Medicine researchers through the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation for the “Kid’s Without Cancer Zebrafish Initiative.”

The donation will create a new zebrafish aquatic housing system in WSU’s Integrative Biosciences Center (IBio) and support of 10 years of pediatric cancer research.

The Zebrafish Initiative will examine the impact of potential toxins, such as pesticides, on the development of leukemia in the zebrafish model. That will lay the foundation for large-scale screening for other causative agents. The first pesticide to be tested will be propoxur, commonly used against grass, forestry and household pests and fleas.

“Given the prevalence of leukemia in children, identifying factors associated with its development has important implications in childhood health,” says Jeffrey Taub, M.D., chief of Oncology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and professor of pediatrics in the WSU School of Medicine. “It is likely that the interaction of genetic and environmental factors combine in the development of leukemia.”

Ryan Thummel (left) and Jeffrey Taub

Ryan Thummel (left) and Jeffrey Taub

The initiative builds upon the successful creation of a genetic strain of zebrafish engineered to express human leukemia genes by developmental geneticist Ryan Thummel, an assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology in the WSU School of Medicine, and Taub. Kids Without Cancer funded that research the last three years.

“We had so much success with our original support that we saw the potential of additional scientific breakthroughs if we could ramp the research up,” says Chris Vandenberg, executive director of Kids Without Cancer. “The reality is we’re an all-volunteer organization, so we always support seed projects. With this, we think we’re helping the researchers get the pieces in place to go after multi-million dollar grants.”

The zebrafish facility will be built by Aquaneering, an internationally recognized leader in the manufacture of Zebrafish Housing Systems. It is also donating a $7,000 gift-in-kind toward the project. The facility will include three rows of floor-to-ceiling, 7-foot-tall racks with an approximate capacity of 6,000 adult zebrafish.

Thummell says there are several reasons for using zebrafish for cancer.

First, the genetics that underlie cancer formation in humans are conserved in zebrafish, which allows researcher to directly test whether mutations in certain genes lead to cancer onset.

Second, zebrafish are pretty prolific. They can produce thousands of offspring from a single mating event. As a result, researchers can screen genetically similar siblings on a very large scale. That’s very important for cancer research since the incidence rates of some cancers is very low.

Finally, zebrafish are cheap compared with other test subjects. It costs $50-100 per mouse per year to feed and maintain them in a rodent animal facility. It costs just $1 per fish per year.

The research will be highlighted in a display in the waiting room of the Pediatric Oncology Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

Children's Hospital of Michigan

Children’s Hospital of Michigan

The researchers hope to also develop zebrafish models to study brain tumors and neurofibromatosis in children.

“At the core of this research initiative is the vision that all children deserve to be healthy so that they have more time to play, dream and just be kids,” Vandenberg says.

About the Author