News / Halifax

Nothing fishy about this: zebrafish lab conducting cancer research at Dalhousie University

Students and scientists say research at a new-state-of-the-art laboratory at Dalhousie University is going along swimmingly.

On Thursday, the school unveiled its new $1.8-million zebrafish lab and CORES (Centralized Operation of Research Equipment and Support) facility, located at the Life Sciences Research Institute building.

The new 4,000 square foot facility features a molecular lab and a number of small rooms which are used to conduct tissue and cell experiments. It also has the capacity to hold upwards of 65,000 zebra fish at one time, and was custom designed by lab workers to suit their specific research needs.

Dr. Jason Berman is the director of the aptly named Berman Fish Laboratory, a specialist in Paediatrics and Oncology at the IWK Health Centre, and an associate professor in microbiology and pathology at Dalhousie.

He said the new facility it is one of the largest labs of its kind in Canada, and believes it can transform “Halifax into the national centre for zebra research and disease modelling.”

“Zebrafish, which is somewhat humbling, are very genetically similar to people,” Berman explained Thursday.

In fact, he said zebra fish have a much more straightforward genetic make up and development pattern than humans do, which makes them ideal for research into how diseases spread, particularly cancer.

Because zebrafish are also a transparent grey colour, Berman said researchers can literally watch how diseased cells spread through a body through a microscope.  Compared to mice, he also said zebra fish are considerably less expensive and can produce up to 2,000 embryos each week.

Gretchen Wagner is a graduate of biology from Dalhousie and now works as the head technician in the fish rooms.

She said one of the main experiments carried out is what's called  “Zeno transplantation,” where cancer cells are collected from a human patient, labelled with a fluorescent dye, then infused into the fish in order to study what types of drugs are most effective for treatment.

The ultimate goal, Berman said, is to bring cancer researchers one step closer to finding a cure.

“We can screen large numbers of zebra fish with many compounds very quickly, much for efficiently than we could in mouse or other animal models in order to find treatments that restore normal development," he said.

Besides cancer research, the new zebrafish lab also conducts research on rare diseases, neuroscience and behaviour patterns.

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