Zebrafish larvae host tumours to test treatments

A zebrafish larva with transplanted tumour cells in red.
A zebrafish larva with transplanted tumour cells in red.
Credit: Rita Fior / CCU

Spare a thought for the zebrafish. Scientists love to use this tiny member of the minnow family for genetic and pharmacological experiments: more like humans than fruit-flies, easier to take care of than rats and mice, easy to genetically manipulate, profligate with offspring. Their embryos and larvae are also completely transparent, which makes it very easy to see the effects of genetic or chemical experiments.

The latest indignity? Transplanting cells from human tumours into zebrafish larvae and testing an array of treatments to find the best one for the human host of the parent tumour.

Researchers led by Rita Fior from the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal, have succeeded in early tests of this method, according to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Similar testing has been done using mice, but it can take months for the tumour to grow large enough in the mouse for tests to be effective. In zebrafish larvae, this waiting time could be cut down to two weeks.

Importantly, Fior and colleagues found that the zebrafish results were equivalent to those using mice.

“We demonstrated for the first time that zebrafish and mice react to treatments in the same way,” says researcher Miguel Godinho Ferreira. “With the same drugs, we obtain the same results in mice and in zebrafish larvae.”

If the results are confirmed, it might be a breakthrough in cancer treatment and unequivocally good news. From the human perspective, at least.

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