Clients in the News – Zebrafish Shed Light on Colon Cancer at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Zebrafish embryos in normal water (left) and calcium-depleted water (right). The cells that import calcium are marked with black. Note the large amount of cells present in calcium-depleted water. Image courtesy of U-M.

Occasionally in the research world, investigation in one particular study can lead to accidental and novel discoveries in another. Such was the case recently as the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where life science researchers working on zebrafish embryos stumbled upon a revelation about colon cancer that also applies to humans.

U-M life science researcherThe study began with the work of Cunming Duan (pictured left), professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at U-M. His lab was studying the growth of zebrafish embryos, in particular the role of cells that import calcium into the body. These cells are found in the intestines and stomach of humans, but they live right on the skin of zebrafish embryos, making them much easier to study. Duan was tracking these cells with a fluorescent marker when he noticed something strange.

“We found accidentally that these cells divide like crazy when you change the water calcium level,” he reported in a U-M news release. In particular, the cells proliferated the most when calcium levels were significantly low. The rate at which the cells multiplied made Duan think of a tumor. “We then wondered if the growth factor involved had anything to do with colon cancer.”

Further research revealed that, in fact, lower calcium levels did cause colon cancer in these embryos. The reason lies in a calcium regulation mechanism that the zebrafish activate when in water with low calcium. Basically, it creates lots more of the cells that import calcium, to better glean what little calcium is available. The drawback is that if the body still does not obtain enough calcium, more of these cells are created and a tumor begins to form. Duan found that this same mechanism is present in humans, which is why extreme calcium deficiency can lead to colon cancer in humans.