Big Help from Small Creatures

Scientists are always working together to discover new ways to cure diseases but some are collaborating with some very surprising (and very small) creatures in the name of making kids and adults feel better.

Zebrafish-Allies in the fight against cancer

Can you imagine being able to look inside your body to see if your medicine is working? Casper, a variety of zebrafish, allows scientists to do just that. Its translucent (see through) skin acts as a window for doctors to observe the zebrafish’s cells as they look for cures for disease such as cancer.

Zebrafish are ideal specimens for doctors to study how the human body reacts to new treatments. This tiny fish has many of the same organs as humans including the brain, heart, liver, spleen, pancreas, gallbladder, intestines, kidney, testis and ovaries. It also shares many genes with humans, a surprising 70 per cent of them. These similarities mean that the zebrafish can develop many of the same types of tumours we can.

Scientists introduce cancer-causing cells (xenografting) or genes (transgenesis) into the fish to study how the disease can be halted. By attaching a glowing green protein to the cell or gene scientists can watch as tumours grow and then shrink as they respond to experimental treatments.

Zebrafish reproduce at a fast rate -a mating pair can produce 200-300 embryos a week. And they grow fast, developing as much in one day as a human does in one month.

The Berman Zebrafish Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS will be playing a big part in the exciting new Canadian project to battle cancer, Terry Fox PROFYLE (Precision Oncology For Young peopLE).

The Microbiome-The world inside of you

Like the planet earth the human body is not just a single organism but a collection of ecosystems made up of microbes, living things too small to be seen with the naked eye. 

Bacteria, viruses and fungi are some types of microbes you may be familiar with but there are many different types of life forms within you. While some microbes can cause disease most are essential to keeping our bodies healthy.

A community of microbes is called a microbiome.  Your body plays host to a number of microbiomes, each one a unique environment that is only habitable to certain microbes. We get our microbiomes from the environment at birth. As we grow and change our microbiomes change with us. Where you live, what you eat, even the pets you keep, can change your microbiome.

The digestive tract is a warm, damp environment that plays host to your most populated microbiome. Many of the microbes living in this ecosystem are helpful to the human body: aiding in digestion, strengthening the immune system and directing the body to do such important things as store fat.

Crohn’s disease is a disease of the digestive tract that is becoming more common in Canadian children. Scientists hope that by changing the balance in the microbiome, (through diet, for example) microbes will help in the battle against the illness.

Fast fact: The genes in our microbiome outnumber our human genes by about 100 to 1.

Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine Fall 2017

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