Zebrafish Make a Difference!

The zebrafish, (otherwise known to scientist as, Danio rerio) is a tropical freshwater fish, a member of the minnow family. (“Minnow” – did the theme from “Gilligan’s Island” pop into your head? If it didn’t with the word, I bet you are humming along now.) This little critter is extremely important in the world of scientific research and did I find out how important when I had the opportunity to visit the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. As part of the tour provided by Suzanne Fountain, Assistant Vice President, Director, The Jimmy Fund she had arranged a special visit to Dr. Leonard Zon’s “zebrafish” research laboratory. Wow! What an enlightening experience!

We met the bearded Dr. Zon (I will call him Dr. Z for the remainder of this story, I hope he does not mind) at the entrance as Suzanne had not met him before and had not seen his lab. Dr. Z warmly greeted us and led us down a hall. The lab is located in the basement of one of the DFCI buildings. As is typical with basement level accommodations, low ceilings were strewn with plumbing and electrical pipes over our heads and the walls were painted concrete. My internal thoughts asked, where was he taking us? This was quite different than the patient and other areas we had covered across the street.

Dr. Z’s laboratory focuses on the developmental biology of hematopoiesis and cancer. You can read more about Dr. Z’s research efforts here. Dr. Z stopped and directed us to a large room on our left. Prior to poking our heads inside, the odor of fish greeted your nostrils. Fish? There in the very large room were stacks and stacks and stacks of small (approximately 6”W x 6”H x 12”D)  rectangular fish tanks. Envision a library with shelves of books and replace with shelves of fish tanks. The rows between the tanks are narrow; every inch of this room was maximized.

Continuing down the hall, we entered a medium sized room, but we continued into a room that I would say was the size of a small walk-in closet. Lab equipment sat on shelves on the facing walls. Dr. Z immediately grabbed one of the stools and offered the others and the next 30 minutes was a tidal wave of detailed commentary on the value of the zebrafish to his research. I was fascinated by several key points (the fish’s rapid gestation period and it’s translucent skin) he made.

Along with expert commentary, Dr. Z had a couple of microscopes connected to computers (Apple, of course) and monitors. He offered live viewings though the scopes and also presented digital videos to illustrate key concepts. For some, the level of detail (hematopoietic systems, ferroportin iron transporters, Cdx-hox pathways, etc.) presented may have been too much, however, Dr. Z established a good balance in communicating the details along with the concepts. This enabled me to confirm my following/understanding and pose questions.

Following the “education”, Dr. Z then excitedly led us to the “fish library” (my term, not his) to show us the fish. Reinforcing points he made back in the “closet” Dr. Z directed us to several tanks that contained “mutants”. These fish were results to scientific modeling experiments and research. Due to their translucent skin, we observed some fish with different size tumors. This visibility was incredibly valuable to the research, as compared to other animals like mice, in which a scientist, or lab assistant would have to “open” the animal to observe the results.

We concluded with a couple of tanks and I offered my sincere thanks for his valuable time and the information he provided. As we made it to the lab doorway, Dr. Z excitedly said, “wait, wait, I have to show you another…” We followed him down one of the rows and he once again provided specific details on the fish contained within the tank set at our eye level.

Once again, Dr. Z, Suzanne and I headed for the doorway. I thought for sure that Dr. Z would call us back another time, but that did not happen. We shook hands and Suzanne and I walked back into daylight. I thanked Suzanne for her time and headed down the street.

I had wanted to visit Dana Farber for many years, but I never made it happen. Now that I worked in Boston I was more compelled to make it happen, after all it was a simple T ride over to DFCI.

I work hard every year getting ready for the ride and raising the money. I put my heart into these efforts. I know that I represent many others who care and want to make a difference. But, imagine the difference that this little zebrafish makes! Thanks Suzanne! Thanks Dr. Zon! Thanks zebrafish!

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