Small fish, big pond

Small fish, big pond

Pharmaceutical companies use zebrafish models to advance some of the most important health issues facing Canadians
March 21, 2014

Toronto’s St. Michael's Hospital is home to one of the most advanced screening facilities in the world. Since 2012, The Zebrafish Centre for Advanced Drug Discovery — the first automated high-throughput zebrafish screening facility in Canada — has enabled researchers to simultaneously test thousands of compounds weekly on live zebrafish embryos  for applications such as potential drugs to protect against Alzheimer’s disease, strokes and to fight inflammation, diabetes and cancer. Headed by Xiao-Yan Wen, a world leader in zebrafish research, this facility is expected to improve the development of personalized and precision medicine by advancing disease modelling and high throughput drug screens.

The Canadian biotech industry is already drawing on the significant capabilities of this research facility. The Centre is partnering with Atuka Inc., a company that conducts Parkinson’s drug tests for pharmaceutical companies, to build a fish model for drug testing. Fish models are zebrafish that have been injected with a gene mutation. Another Toronto-based company, Treventis Corporation, has also commissioned a zebrafish model to speed up their drug testing for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s from ten months in rodent models to only a few weeks in zebrafish. In addition, Wen and his team are currently writing a patent for a number of anti-stroke compounds that they have proven to prevent brain vessel hemorrhaging in larval zebrafish.

Zebrafish have proven to be an ideal research model organism because they more closely resemble humans than invertebrate model organisms such as fruit flies. The fish — whose genome has been fully sequenced — lay 200 transparent eggs a week that mature to adulthood in just three months, so researchers can watch the effects of drugs in real time. Wen received $2 million in 2010 for infrastructure funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to build the Centre.

Photo courtesy of Genome Research Limited