OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Veterinarians seek causes of human disease using aquatic models

05/12/2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Recent graduates of veterinary medicine programs are using common fish species to increase medical understanding and develop prevention protocols for some of the world’s most prevalent and least understood diseases – including cancers, infectious diseases and birth defects.

With funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences is providing select veterinary school graduates from around the country with broad training in biomedical research relevant to the study of human disease.

The training is not part of traditional curriculums offered in most U.S. veterinary schools, said Robert Tanguay, an OSU associate professor in agricultural sciences and the director of the program. In addition to research experience, trainees who participate in the program have the opportunity to earn advanced graduate degrees.

“We’re taking the skills they have acquired and channeling them toward hypothesis-testing research using powerful aquatic models,” said Tanguay.

The program, which is focused on developing research projects that are applicable to human health, incorporates aquatic research organisms like zebrafish, rainbow trout and medaka to determine the genetic causes of human diseases.

“A surprisingly large number of human diseases can be modeled in fish,” said Tanguay, who also heads the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory at OSU. “With about 80 percent of genes in humans also present in these fish, they present an opportunity to better understand risks to human health.”

The NIH awarded Tanguay about $850,000 to be spread over five years for the initiative.

“The work being done in the program focuses on moving the research from the science bench to the patient bedside,” said Tanguay. “Our group uses the zebrafish model because they’re really similar to us and are vertebrates and offer many unique advantages to rapidly unravel disease mechanisms.”

Zebrafish are small, striped tropical fish often sold in pet stores. They are unique from other animal species in that the embryo of the fish is transparent, allowing for direct observation of the fish at early developmental stages. In addition, like the human genome, the zebrafish genome has been fully sequenced allowing for direct comparison between fish and man at the genetic level.

“There are unique opportunities and challenges in using aquatic models to improve human health,” said Tanguay. “The exponential worldwide increase in the use of these models for biomedical research has led to a significant shortage of qualified scientists who have experience using these powerful tools. Training veterinarians in their use addresses an ever-growing need in the biomedical research community.”