Dr. Jason Berman
Fishing for answers:
Tiny striped fish are helping Dr. Jason Berman learn how to customize cancer treatments to best tackle each patient’s unique form of the disease.
“Cancer is not one disease, it’s many diseases,” explains Dr. Berman, an IWK pediatric oncologist and associate professor at Dalhousie Medical School. “There are many sub-types of each major type of cancer—the more closely we can target treatments to a particular patient’s cancer, the better we can eliminate the cancer, with fewer side effects.”
Dr. Berman and his team are growing human cancers in zebrafish to see how the cancers behave and how they respond to an array of drugs. New live-cell imaging equipment to be purchased through this year’s Molly Appeal will help them take their work even further.
“Because zebrafish are transparent, we can directly observe if cancer cells are dividing, migrating or dying in the living fish,” Dr. Berman says. “Live-cell imaging will allow us to see how cancer cells are responding to drugs and interacting with their surrounding environment, much like what happens in patients. We can study responses to drugs that target specific genes and pathways turned on in the cancer cells. These genes and pathways are like settings that control what the cancer cells do—by modifying these settings, we can kill the cancer cells.”
So far, Dr. Berman has grown leukemia, breast, brain, and childhood bone cancers - from cell lines and cells donated by cancer patients - in the zebrafish. “We’re the only lab in Canada and one of few in the world doing this kind of work,” he says. “Pharmaceutical companies are coming to us with candidate drugs, and we’re working our way through large drug libraries, to find treatments that work.”
Dr. Berman foresees the day when zebrafish will be a routine part of cancer treatment. “Within a week of implanting a patient’s cancer cells in the fish, we could be running tests to see what drugs are working best against that individual’s cancer,” he says. “This would revolutionize and highly personalize the clinical management of cancer.”