Can Fluorescent Fish Crack the Code of Neuroblastoma?

According to a story from, researchers are using genetically modified zebrafish (Danio rerio) in an attempt to trace the origins of neuroblastoma, a rare cancer that forms in nerve tissue and primarily affects children. The zebrafish have been altered so that they produce fluorescent tags in a special type of precursory nerve cell called neural crest cells.

Why Zebrafish?

Zebrafish are small freshwater fish with horizontal stripes that are native to small streams in the Himalayas. They are a popular and attractive aquarium fish, but they are also used in research and have been extensively studied. They can be bred in captivity quickly and easily, and they are transparent when young, allowing for changes to be observed readily.

About Neuroblastoma

Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that originates in nerve tissue, most commonly from the adrenal glands. It can also appear in the abdomen, chest, neck, and spine. The cause is poorly understood, but about one percent of cases may be due to an inherited mutation. An increased risk has been linked to certain genetic disorders, and usage of fertility drugs, hormones, and hair dye have been suggested as other possible risks. Symptoms commonly include a lump in the affected area, bone pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, joint pain, fever, and a blueish lump under the skin. Other symptoms depend on the location of the tumor. Treatment and outcomes vary greatly on how advanced the neuroblastoma is when it is diagnosed. The overall survival rate in the US for patients over a year old is 68 percent. To learn more about neuroblastoma, click here.

About Neural Crest Cells

The neural crest cells that have been modified in the zebrafish are the same type of cells from which neuroblastoma originates. Neural crest cells are a type of embryonic stem cell from which many other types of cells are created, including cartilage and neurons. The zebrafish cells glow in different colors, which are dependent on the activity of a gene called SOX10. One mystery that Dr. Rosa Uribe is hoping to discover is what causes these cells to stop dividing.

The Role of SOX10

SOX10 and related proteins play a role in controlling cell division as embryos develop. These SOX proteins are also found to be active in neuroblastoma cells, so finding a way to control their behavior and deactivate them could be an avenue for a future treatment. Observing neural crest cells from their point of creation until the conclusion of their migration is critical to understanding them as they also undergo epithelial to mesenschymal transition (EMT). This is essential for them to be able to migrate to different areas of the embryo. Unfortunately, many cancers use these same mechanism to metastasize (spread). Hopefully, this research will allow for new breakthroughs in treating neuroblastoma.

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