Zebrafish models for human diseases

It may surprise you that this tiny stripey tropical fish’s genome is remarkably similar to the human genome. More than 70% of zebrafish’s protein-coding genes are similar to those in humans, and it has an equivalent of 84% of the genes linked with human diseases.

This makes the zebrafish (Danio rerio) an ideal alternative model for research into the cure and management of human illnesses and diseases. This article reviews the benefits of using zebrafish models for human diseases.

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What makes humans and zebrafish similar?

The zebrafish is comparable to a human with respect to the genome pathway and how the organs and main body parts function. Both have a similar genetic make in terms of the eyes, mouth, teeth, intestines, heart, brain, spinal cord, kidneys, muscles, ears, bones, cartilage, esophagus, and blood.

This makes it an ideal model for the study of human diseases, how genetic changes can affect the human anatomy, and how the use of particular drugs has an impact on illness.

Zebrafish have been used to study and advance the treatment of many common diseases including:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease
  • Cancer
  • Heart diseases
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney diseases
  • Liver diseases

While we still have no complete cure for these devasting diseases, advances in the understanding of how human genes react when exposed to them are consistently taking place thanks to the use of zebrafish and other alternative models

Historically, rare diseases have not been as well-studied as common ones for a variety of reasons, including being cost-prohibitive and requiring more in-depth research, while affecting a smaller population. Zebrafish can be used to better understand the biology of rare diseases and how they develop, in a more cost-effective manner, therefore, providing more opportunities to preserve human life. Even generating disease models by gene editing when usually there is a lack of disease models for screening the potential efficacy of drugs to treat them.

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Unlike humans, the zebrafish also has an amazing ability to regenerate some of its organs if they are damaged, including the heart, brain, eyes, or spinal cord.

The study of how this takes place allows scientists to consider how to treat damage in the human body in a similar way. For example, a zebrafish can regenerate a damaged retina – understanding how this takes place could lead to the treatment of eye diseases that affect millions of people.

Gene editing

Also known as genetic engineering, gene editing in zebrafish allows experiments to take place to ascertain how certain diseases affect the human body. The manipulation of genes can identify why defective genes occur and how to prevent this from happening.

For example, this process can be used in zebrafish to study how defects cause heart diseases, the changes in the brain as neurodegenerative diseases develop, and what can cause them. These are only a handful of the possibilities that gene editing must model human diseases – the options are almost limitless as science develops.

One of the most common methods for gene editing is the CRISPR Cas technology which is short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. It is a more accurate and time-effective method of altering genes to test how they react in different circumstances.

The benefits of using zebrafish to study human disease

In addition to being an ideal model to study how and why human diseases develop and how the body responds to certain chemicals zebrafish have many other advantages in pre-clinical research. These include:

  • Rapid development – they only take 5 days to develop
  • Externally fertilized embryos – allows for non-invasive techniques in research
  • Fast maturation – most organs form in 48 hours post-fertilization
  • A large number of offspring – can produce up to 300 embryos per adult couple at a time
  • Ease of husbandry – being so small they are cost-effective to breed and keep
  • Transparency – allowing the internal organs to be viewed directly by image analysis

This makes the zebrafish an ideal alternative to animal models, such as rodents, which are more expensive to breed and house and are not an ethical option in medical research.

Not only does the relationship between human diseases and zebrafish benefit the discovery of new treatments. Understanding why diseases occur in the human body can be beneficial to those suffering. This is why there are already cures for types of cancer and other diseases in clinical trials thanks to the zebrafish, that could be commercialized in the future. Time and further biological research will bring more, but one thing is for sure, this tiny vertebrate is an essential resource for disease prevention and Drug Discovery and Development.


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