Zebrafish show promise for better cancer treatment delivery

Tiny tropical fish much like minnows may hold the key to helping oncologists deliver more personalized and effective methods of treatments to their cancer patients.

That’s the aim of Indrajit Sinha, CEO of Biomedcore, a Tecumseh medical diagnostics company that worked with biology professor Lisa Porter on setting up an experimental system to grow cancer cells in zebrafish and see how they respond to a variety of drug therapies.

“Cancer is unique in every patient,” said Sinha, whose company does consulting, collaborative research and personalized disease models. “This can help lead to the individualization of treatment.”

Researchers in Dr. Porter’s lab set up aquariums in the basement of the Biological Sciences building where they inject fluorescently tagged cells from brain, breast and lung cancer tumours into the yolk sacs of freshly fertilized fish eggs, and then monitor those cells as they metastasize. Then they inject the fish with various cancer drugs to see how they respond.

“The idea is founded on excellent science,” Porter said, noting that Sinha has been published in Nature and other top scientific journals. “There’s a lot of science to support the notion that this can be a good tumour model. Other scientists have already been using fish for toxicity and drug development tests. You can monitor in real time what’s happening to the cells and the response to the drug.”

Typically, researchers in Porter’s lab would use mice for the same experiments, but those animals are expensive because they’ve been genetically modified to have their immune systems deactivated in order to allow the cancers to spread. Zebrafish are much cheaper to maintain and make for a much more realistic model because their immune systems can be kept functioning while running the experiments.

“These are immune competent, which means their immune cells are active,” explained Porter. “Being able to keep the immune system intact is huge.”

Ultimately, Sinha hopes the fish can be used as a diagnostic tool. Cancers cells could be taken from a recently-diagnosed human and injected into a fish which would be used by scientists to provide a prognosis on whether those cells will metastasize. Oncologists could then use that information to tailor their patient’s treatments based on which drugs have responded best in those fish models, he said.

Sinha worked on the project with Porter through the FedDev Applied Research and Commercialization Initiative, a granting program that pairs academic researchers with small to medium-sized businesses to turn ideas into commercially viable goods and services. Porter’s lab helped set up the model to test whether the method would work, and while more testing is required, preliminary results show promise, she said.

“We didn’t have the expertise to do this,” Sinha said. “Lisa did.”

Sinha said he would love to set up a zebrafish diagnostic lab right here on campus, noting it would provide a great way for students to conduct research under the guidance of both a faculty advisor and an industrial partner.