Tiny fish may hold key to cancer and lymphatic disease breakthroughs

28 Sep 2010

 A UQ researcher is using small transparent fish as a weapon in the battle against cancer and lymphatic disease. 

Dr Ben Hogan from UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience has won a $70,000 UQ Foundation Research Excellence Award to advance his work using zebrafish to study the development of the lymphatic system. 

Lymphatic vessels form a network similar to that of blood vessels to transport fluid, immune cells and fats around the body. Damage or deformation of the lymphatic system in humans can cause diseases such as lymphedema, where tissues swell because the lymphatic vessels don't remove fluid properly. 

The lymphatic system also plays an important role in cancer. It is the route through which tumour cells spread, and previous studies have shown that blocking the growth of lymphatic vessels can dramatically reduce the spread of cancer. 

“Despite these major functions, the lymphatic system remains one of the most understudied organ systems in terms of its development,” Dr Hogan said. 

“We have identified several zebrafish genetic mutants that develop without lymphatic vessels. We will genetically map four of these mutants and identify genes essential for lymphatic vessel development.” 

Dr Hogan and his team hope to identify which genes can be targeted for treatments to promote lymphatic vessel development, in the case of lymphatic diseases, or block lymphatic vessel growth and therefore the spread of tumours. 

Zebrafish are ideal organisms to use for this work because the lymphatic system of larval zebrafish is remarkably similar to that of humans. In addition, zebrafish embryos develop outside their mother's body, and their skin is transparent, allowing researchers to easily observe their development. 

Prior to joining the IMB as a group leader in December 2009, Dr Hogan had already found one gene important for regulating lymphatic vessel development in zebrafish and humans. This discovery resulted from work performed at the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental and Stem Cell Biology in the Netherlands, where Dr Hogan was a postdoctoral researcher. 

Dr Hogan was presented with his award at a special ceremony on Wednesday, September 22, as part of the University's annual Research Week

The UQ Foundation Research Excellence Awards have been running for 12 years and are an initiative of UQ to recognise outstanding performance and leadership potential in early career researchers. This year's awards total $910,000. 

Media: Bronwyn Adams, IMB Communications, 07 3346 2134 or 0418 575 247