For the most part the fish are quite common, available at nearly any pet store. And yet despite their ordinariness, zebrafish have in recent years become highly prized by scientists, biologists and pharmaceutical companies in researching treatments for diseases from autism to cancer. But even with the growth in interest in the fish, there apparently are still few people across the country who know how to properly grow and maintain them.
Researchers at Gadsden State are helping to improve that situation.
The aquaculture department at Gadsden State’s campus in Gadsden on Monday hosted the first day of a three-day workshop to create a standardized curriculum for raising zebrafish. About 20 researchers, professors and biologists from universities, hospitals and research facilities across the country are participating, lending their expertise to develop the lesson plans. Gadsden State is sponsoring the workshop with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, along with several companies that specialize in making equipment to house and care for zebrafish.
“They can’t get enough qualified people to care for these fish,” Hugh Hammer, aquaculture program manager at Gadsden State, said of research facilities. “We’ve been doing it and have done it in a more traditional fashion with other fish.”
Students at the aquaculture department at Gadsden State, which has two campuses in Anniston, learn to care for aquatic and marine life for careers in the aquaculture and public aquarium industries.
Steve Watts, professor in the college of arts and sciences at UAB, said he and the other researchers at the workshop are self-made experts in raising zebrafish, and hope to educate their counterparts across the country. Once complete, the curriculum will include a series of online courses and hands-on training.
“They are excellent specimens, but there aren’t enough individuals trained to work well with these animals,” Watts said.
For the last five years, Watts and other researchers at UAB have used zebrafish to research nutrition and obesity.
Samuel Cartner, associate vice president of animal research resources at UAB, said the curriculum training is needed due to the labor intensive aspects of caring for the fish.
“You have to care for the fish, but the fish also have to be fed a live diet,” Cartner said. “So you also have to keep a culture to take care of the food for the fish.”
But despite the labor involved, the fish offer many benefits that make them more useful in research instead of the traditional lab mice and rats. Cartner said the fish are cheaper to use than mice because they reproduce quickly in large amounts. A typical zebrafish can lay 100 eggs each week, while a mouse can produce just six to eight pups weekly, Cartner said.
Another major benefit is zebrafish share many of the same genes as humans, making them ideal for researching diseases. Christian Lawrence, aquatic resources program manager at Boston Children’s Hospital, said about 100 researchers are using his fish to study different diseases.
“Despite being separated by 450 million years of evolution, the fish and humans share many of the same genetics,” said Lawrence, who attended the Gadsden event. “They are used to study everything you can think of, from cancer, to muscular dystrophy to autism.”
Lawrence said his hospital’s ultimate goal researching zebrafish is to learn how to make sick children better. And so far, the hospital appears to be succeeding.
“At Children’s, there are therapeutic drugs in various stages in human trials that were first used in these fish,” Lawrence said.
He said one drug under development boosts blood cell production. Drop in blood count is a side effect of chemotherapy.
“We did that first by boosting blood cells in zebrafish,” Lawrence said.
George Sanders, aquatic veterinarian with the U.S. Geologic Survey Western Fisheries Research Center, said his department was using zebrafish to study infectious diseases.
“We’re evaluating the immune system of zebrafish and the goal is to better understand human immune systems,” said Sanders, who also was in Gadsden Monday.
Lawrence said the many research possibilities are why more people need to know how to raise and maintain zebrafish.
“The science doesn’t work if the fish aren’t happy,” he said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star