University of Oregon pioneered the use of zebrafish DNA to fight diseases in the 1980s, and with a new $2.5 million grant, researchers may be saving more lives today.

John Postlethwait, a biology professor at the UO, recently received $2.5 million from the National Institute of Health to fund Postlethwait’s research on Fanconi Anemia (FA) at the University of Oregon. According to the Institute of Health’s website, out of 68,285 research grant applications submitted to the National Institute of Health in 2014, only 21% were accepted and funded.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute defines the disease as a “rare, inherited blood disorder that leads to bone marrow failure.” The average lifespan of someone with FA is between 20-30 years.

The grant will help fund Postlethwait’s work for the next four years. The majority of the money will go towards paying salaries for people who conduct research, DNA sequencing and zebrafish husbandry.

“John is one of many researchers on campus that show us how the world works and how to make it better,” said Bill Cresko, an associate professor at the University’s Institute of Ecology and Evolution and director of Cresko Laboratory.

The first year of research will be spent comparing diseased and healthy DNA in order to discover differences between them. The next phase is drug screening in order to find a substance that can repair the damaged DNA. If his team is successful, then they will conduct the same tests on mice with the hope of one day using it on people.

Zebrafish are the model organism used in this study. It all has to do with the potentially revolutionary new way of testing diseased genes. The traditional way of identifying proteins to find small molecules that affect the disease is very time consuming. This new method involves looking at the whole organism to see the differences between healthy and damaged DNA.

“We can understand when a developmental genetic system is broken and we might be able to understand the genes and what they do, but we don’t know how to fix them,” Cresko said. “What John and his colleagues have done is to find ways to apply small molecules and look at how these zebra fish that have mutations and see if these molecules will negate the effects.”

As the leader of the project, Postlethwait will coordinate with research teams from Germany and Texas who are conducting the same experiments on zebra fish, except with melanoma instead of FA.

Zebrafish are ideal research subjects for this experiment as they are easy to breed, small enough so it’s simple to look at the whole organism, convenient to apply the drugs by placing it their water and are affected by FA in the same manner as humans, Cresko said. The UO is an ideal place for this research to take place because it is home to the Zebrafish International Resource Center.

Peter von Hippel, a retired professor and former board member of the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund, called the approach both “novel and promising.”

“As a knowledgeable bystander, I look forward to seeing their results,” said von Hippel.

Follow Eric Schucht on Twitter @EricSchucht

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