Leonard Zon, MD, the director of the Stem Cell Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, is leading a team of scientists who are attempting to find a way of detecting cancer from the onset of the first malignant cell. By imaging zebrafish around the clock, the team was able to visualize the origins of the first cancerous cell developing in the animal. This research could be the key to learning how to switch off some of the factors responsible for melanoma formation in humans.
The zebrafish involved in this study had the human cancer mutation BRAFV600E and lacked the tumor suppressor gene p53. The other genetic mutation engineered in the fish was the bioluminescent marker indicating the presence of the crestin gene. Whenever a zebrafish in the study displayed this green fluorescence, the glowing spot went on to become a tumor 100% of the time. The team’s working hypothesis gleaned from this research is “that normal tissue becomes primed for cancer when oncogenes are activated and tumor suppressor genes are silenced or lost, but that cancer develops only when a cell in the tissue reverts to a more primitive, embryonic state and starts dividing.” (Nancy Fliesler)