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Looking to zebrafish to find new ways of managing cancer

“In order for a drug to actually make it to the clinic and to a patient, it really has to go through preclinical testing in animal models,” says Dr. Jason Berman.

However, Berman says that we are no longer in the days of “guinea pigs.” Instead, scientists have turned to fish.

Berman, the Dalhousie Medical School and the IWK Health Centre have teamed up to open Halifax’s Berman Zebrafish Laboratory.

Opened at the end of October, the $1.8 million facility is one of the largest in the country, and is one of few others of its kind worldwide.

Fish are the most commonly used models in Canadian institutional research, according to statistics provided by the Canadian Council of Animal Care, the federal agency in charge of monitoring animal ethics in scientific research.

The CCAC’s annual reports state that well over one million fish are used for research on average each year, causing more laboratories dedicated to research exclusively using fish to open.

The lab is designed to house over 50,000 fish and comes equipped with new, cutting-edge technologies for research. It currently holds roughly 8,000 fish, but its numbers are growing.

“We breed a lot of our own fish here,” says Dr. Berman

“We also get fish from the Zebrafish Resource Centre based in Oregon and from other co leagues and collaborators across North America and across the world. They will send the fish to us but then we will grow them up and rear them in our own facility.”

Biomedical research experiments are conducted on the fish in order to help develop new types of therapeutic drugs for diseases. One of the main goals of the experiments is to find supplementary treatments for diseases that have fewer short-term and long-term side effects than current standard treatments, such as chemotherapy.

“I think the fish are a really good tool to help trying to design better therapies,” says Dr. Berman.

The fish are simple organisms, but they contain many structural similarities to humans.

“Regarding the blood system and the genetics, they’re around 85% similar to humans,” Babak Razaghi, Research Associate at the Berman Lab, explains.

Such similarities mean that researchers are able to use these simple creatures to answer some of the most complex scientific questions, especially when it comes to how cancer cells behave.

“You can do this type of thing in a test tube, or on a petri dish, but the petri dish doesn’t have a blood supply, and it doesn’t have the kinds of complex interactions of cells and other processes going on,” says Dr. Johnston, the Associate Dean of Research at the Dalhousie Medical School.

Researchers are able to watch the behaviour of diseased cells in the fish, since the animals are transparent.

The fish are also cost-effective, since they can live in small tanks. Feeding the fish is not expensive compared to the costs of feeding other animals such as rats or mice.

Another key advantage of using the fish as models is that the test results are available within a week. This rapid turn-around time can help accelerate more discoveries that turn into actual therapies, as well as more developments of new kinds of treatments.

Dr. Berman can take cancer cell samples directly from consenting patients and, using the fish, the team is able to discover new therapies that are catered to that individual.

Just as there is no cure-all for every type of cancer, every body responds to diseases in a unique way, and the Berman lab is trying to develop new, more personalized therapies.

The goal is to one day be able to use the lab’s findings to recommend more specialized treatments directly to the doctors looking after the person who provides samples to the lab.

The Berman lab’s work is not limited to cancer research. The team works on developing new drugs for rare childhood diseases, and to help treat long-term side-effects of current cancer treatments, such as heart damage.

Dr. Berman hopes to achieve his dream of creating treatments on a patient-by-patient basis within the next five years.

“We’re not doing that yet, but that’s sort of the dream, that we could do that in the future.”

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