Students and faculty members at the UH Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling received a grant of $375,000 from the National Institutes of Health for a study that will research the effects of environmental pollutants on diabetes and obesity.
Researchers will expose zebrafish to different chemicals and score the change in the number of beta cells, the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas.
As for obesity testing, the fish will first be exposed to the chemicals and then fed a high cholesterol diet. The rate of change in body mass will then be analyzed.
“We will treat the fish with the chemicals in utero to test if what (humans) are exposed to in utero can affect when we’re older,” said Catherine McCollum, a postdoctoral fellow at the CNRCS and a project team member.
“The hope is that our research will be able to change something within this industry.”
According to Maria Bondesson, a research assistant professor and project leader, the facility is extensive.
“The zebrafish lab has been running since 2009. We expanded it in 2011 with a new fully-automated tank system. Currently, we have several thousands of fish of about 30 different strains,” Bondesson said.
The lab is separated into two rooms — one where the fish are kept and bred and another where the fish embryos are treated with the chemicals researchers wish to study.
Because zebrafish have pancreata that are similar to those of a mammals, the fish can be used to compare the effects of certain chemicals on the number of pancreatic beta cells that release insulin.
“There has not been a systematic screening of chemicals for obesity and diabetes-inducing capacity,” Bondesson said.
“This is partly because it is very costly and time consuming to do this kind of screening in, for example, mice. Using zebra fish we can rapidly screen very many chemicals, and if we find any hits, these chemicals could be further studied in mammals.”
With the help of professor Ioannis Kakadiaris of the Department of Computer Science, researchers are also working to develop an automatic image analysis method so that they will be able to quantify the effects of exposures to different chemicals as well as beta cell count.
Researchers will begin by screening for selected chemicals suspected to have an effect on diabetes and obesity but eventually aim to screen many different kinds of environmental pollutants, such as pesticides and plasticizers.
McCollum said she is not sure how long the research will continue.
The list of testable chemicals is extensive, Bondesson said.
“The long-term goal is to set up many more zebrafish-based screens for developmental toxicants to be able to prescreen which of the 80,000 industrial chemicals present in the environment pose threats to human and animal health,” Bondesson said.
“We also want to utilize zebrafish as a model to screen for nutrients or drugs that have positive effects on the fish.”