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A school of zebrafish.

Cancer researchers at U are working with zebrafish to understand how human blood vessels develop, and consequently, stop tumors from developing.

Fish tales and zebrafish

U researcher uses zebrafish to find new cancer therapies

Sept. 18, 2006

To be fond of fish is not unusual here in Minnesota. To be fond of inch-long, see-through fish with fluorescent blood vessels that may one day lead to new cancer therapies... well, that's another story. But it's one that University researcher Stephen Ekker is happy to tell.

Ekker, an associate professor of genetics, cell biology and development, spends his time surrounded by thousands of zebrafish. The zebrafish are a popular subject for research in his field because they are prolific, easy to handle and, from a basic physiological standpoint, similar to humans. He uses the fish as a model organism for exploring how embryonic cells develop into various types of tissue.

Lately, Ekker has been focusing his efforts on understanding what stimulates the development of blood vessels--an understanding that has major implications for combating cancer. As tumors grow, they send out signals to nearby blood vessels commanding them to sprout branches that then surround and feed the cancer cells. Ekker has been using the zebrafish, which are genetically altered so their blood vessels light up like glow sticks under special microscopes, to explore ways he could convince vessels not to follow tumors' orders.

Using a novel gene-silencing technique he developed, Ekker recently pinpointed four genes that play a role in blood vessel development. He then focused in on one of them, a gene that codes for the production of a molecule called syndecan-2. After it's assembled, syndecan-2 parks itself on the surface of a cell and facilitates the signaling required to make new vessels, Ekker explains. By modifying the syndecan-2 gene, Ekker has been able to convince it to produce a protein that prevents, rather than promotes, blood vessel growth.

Although his work is a ways from application in humans--"in the therapeutic pipeline, we're at the top of the pipeline," says Ekker--it's showing plenty of potential in the laboratory. In one study Ekker was able to reduce blood vessel growth by blocking production of syndecan-2 by human breast cancer cells grafted to mice.

Ekker's experience with cancer includes watching his sister, who's now a 20-year survivor, go through diagnosis and treatment.

"It is a terrible disease," he says. "If our fish work can contribute to the cause of combating cancer, then it sounds like a good thing to me."

Further reading U researchers identify genes that foster blood cell development From DNA doctor to DNA destroyer Another reason to quit New treatment for blood cancer