Zebrafish Swim into Labs of MS Researchers

In Brief:

Megan was fresh out of college with a bachelor’s degree in marine biology. An expert on minnows, she loved studying zebrafish, which are fast becoming a favorite model for medical researchers. She enjoyed travelling to the tropics where she could swim and observe marine life close-up. But soon after graduation, Megan was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Ready to pursue a promising career, she had no idea of how this incurable disease would affect her future and her dreams.

Approximately 400,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with MS, most of whom are between the ages of 20 and 50. Dr. David Lyons of the University of Edinburgh and Dr. Kelly Monk of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are two of the many scientists researching MS around the world, and both are studying the zebrafish as they race to find a cure.

[Graphic by Staff Illustrator]
[Graphic by Staff Illustrator]

What is MS?
Nerves in the human body act as messengers. They are insulated by a special layer known as the myelin sheath, which relays electrical signals to the brain which instruct our bodies to perform basic actions and movements. Patients with MS have an immune system that attacks their myelin sheath (Dugdale, 2013), blocking vital messages from reaching the brain and hindering normal responses. MS is a neurodegenerative disease, meaning the damage to the structure and function of these nerves accumulates over time. Megan became concerned when she had blurred vision, numbness, and dizziness, early indicators of MS. Patients gradually experience the loss of essential functions, which may include an inability to swallow, speak, or walk.

How can zebrafish help?
Dr. Monk and Dr. Lyons are fishing for answers in the tropical zebrafish. Since zebrafish are about 70% similar to humans in their protein-coding genes, Dr. Lyons looks for genes in the zebrafish genome that control the rebuilding of the myelin sheath. Interestingly, the molecules used to create the myelin sheath in newborns are the same molecules used to create myelin in adults. Therefore, genes that code for the creation of myelin are still present in MS patients; it’s just a matter of locating them. Fortunately, Lyons and his team have been able to target some of these genes, giving them better understanding of which molecules repair the myelin sheath after immune cells attack. Their goal is to repair the damaged myelin sheath to allow proper messages to be sent through nerves. Dr. Monk and her research team have a different approach to understanding myelin sheath repair. They genetically screen zebrafish to uncover neuron receptors and have successfully found a receptor that can instruct certain cells to remake myelin. These MS researchers are optimistic about finding a cure, giving hope to Megan, who is now studying her favorite fish to learn even more about her own disease.

Works Cited

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