No matter how diminutive the zebrafish (Danio rerio) is, the creature is producing a massive, lasting impact on medical research.

Such is the case of a new report conducted by experts from Harvard Medical School, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard University.

Comparing the blood systems of humans to that of the zebrafish, researchers found that the small tropical freshwater fish may provide an effective model of study when learning about rare genetic blood disorders.

Dr. Terence Flotte, editor-in-chief of the journal where the study was published, says zebrafish have proven to be an extremely powerful model for studying the developmental biology of blood-forming tissues.

The zebrafish was first introduced to medical research during the early 1980s. The marine creature has since then become important to the study of human blood disorders, among other things.

Because of the genetic similarities between blood systems of zebrafish and humans, it is relatively easy and cost-effective for scientists to conduct chemical, genetic, imaging and other molecular studies on the model organism to examine hematopoietic development, blood disorders and malignancies.

In fact, study authors say innovative technologies such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system, state-of-the-art microscopes and improved transplantation assays join the unique methods of chemical and genetic screens that make the zebrafish a helpful model to study human diseases.

The full details of the report are published in the journal Human Gene Therapy. Study authors say further investigations are being performed to expand what scientists could learn from zebrafish systems. There are still limitations, but researchers hope that technological advances will overcome obstacles.

Meanwhile, another zebrafish study issued in April this year found that the tropical freshwater fish may help humans determine if we could regenerate limbs.

Researchers from Duke University School of Medicine discovered that the genes that turn on regeneration among zebrafish have counterparts in mammals.

Instead of studying tissue and cell regeneration, Duke University scientists focused on TREEs (tissue regeneration enhancer elements), which act as a switch that signal when a tissue is in need of repair, when a tissue is being repaired and when it completes repair.

Led by Kenneth Poss, researchers monitored zebrafish with damaged hearts or fins, and found that a gene known as "leptin b" was activated compared to zebrafish in full health.

Poss says their findings point to a method that could potentially awaken genes for regeneration in humans, and possibly regenerate amputated limbs.

Photo: Oregon State University | Flickr

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