Dr. Jason Berman

Dr. Jason Berman

Dr. Jason Berman

Cancer, Molly Appeal

Fishing for answers:
Dr. Jason Berman turns to zebrafish for clues to customized cancer treatments

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 cell analysis equipment to be purchased through Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation's 2018-19 Fall Molly Appeal—as well as a genome informatics program to be partly funded by the Molly Appeal—will help them take their work even further.

"Cell analysis 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," Dr. Berman says. "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—including forms that are unique to children with Down Syndrome—as well as breast, brain and childhood bone cancers 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.”

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