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Wayne State’s zebrafish might hold key to fighting leukemia

January 3, 2017


Ryan Thummel (left) and Jeffrey Taub

A significant gift from the organization Kids Without Cancer is bringing together Detroit’s major players in childhood cancer research in an innovative initiative using zebrafish to 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 financial support will result in the creation of a new zebrafish aquatic housing system in WSU’s Integrative Biosciences Center (IBio) and support of 10 years of pediatric cancer research.

A check presentation for the gift will be held on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 at 6:30 p.m. at the IBio Building located at 6135 Woodward Ave. at the beginning of a Kids Without Cancer board meeting.

The Zebrafish Initiative will examine the impact of potential toxins (e.g. pesticides) on the development of leukemia in the zebrafish model, which will lay the foundation for large-scale screening for other causative agents. The first pesticide to be tested will be propoxur, which is 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,” said Jeffrey Taub, M.D., chief of Oncology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and professor of pediatrics in the WSU School of Medicine, who has cared for a large population of pediatric patients with acute leukemias. “It is likely that the interaction of genetic and environmental factors combine in the development of leukemia.”

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.

“This whole project wouldn’t have been possible without the financial support of Kids Without Cancer,” Thummel said. “They wanted to do something big and exciting.”

Chris Vandenberg, executive director of Kids Without Cancer, agreed. “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. 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.”

Environmental toxicologist Tracie Baker, an assistant professor in WSU’s Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, is joining the research team. She has extensive experience using zebrafish to understand the adverse health effects of exposure to environmental toxins.

The zebrafish facility will be built by Aquaneering, an internationally recognized leader in the manufacture of Zebrafish Housing Systems. In addition, after hearing about the unique potential of the Zebrafish Initiative, Aquaneering is 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, which are becoming the go-to model for cancer research for several reasons.

“First, we have discovered that the genetics that underlie cancer formation in humans is conserved in zebrafish, which allows us to directly test whether mutations in certain genes lead to cancer onset,” Thummel said. “Second, zebrafish can produce thousands of offspring from a single mating event. This allows us to screen genetically-similar siblings on a very large scale. This is extremely important for cancer research as the incidence rates of some cancers is very low. The final reason zebrafish are advantageous is cost. It costs $50-100 per mouse per year to feed and maintain in a rodent animal facility. In contrast, it costs just $1 per fish per year.”

In addition to the new facility at Wayne State, the research will be highlighted in a display in the waiting room of the Pediatric Oncology Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

“This collaboration between a practicing clinician and research scientists is extremely well-suited for revealing previously unrecognized environmental influences and genes that can trigger the development of leukemia,” said Larry Burns, president and chief executive officer of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation. “We’re hopeful this partnership will prove scientifically fruitful, as well as expand our fundraising opportunities.”

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 said.