Cancer Research at NC State's College of Veterinary Medicine Shines Light on Fluorescent Fish

Researchers on NC State's Centennial Biomedical Campus are using “fluorescent fish” as a molecular "beacon" to study cancer and animal development.
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Sept. 23, 2010 - PRLog -- Researchers at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine are using “fluorescent fish” as a molecular "beacon" to study cancer and animal development. The researchers focused their attention on a gene--known as Sp2--that regulates the expression of other genes, and the “fluorescent fish” they created may provide the earliest hints of tumor development.

Sp2 is a member of the Sp family of transcription factors, proteins that act as cellular “switchboard operators” by turning genes on or off as needed. The scientists, with the Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research (CCMTR), had noted that the development of skin tumors was correlated with the production of too much Sp2, and others had noted similar findings in prostate cancers, but beyond that very little was known about the protein.

Dr. Jonathan Horowitz, an associate professor of oncology in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences, and CCMTR colleagues Dr. Jeffrey Yoder, Jianzhen Xie, Haifeng Yin, and Teresa Nichols, wondered whether they could use over-production of Sp2 in tumors as an early indicator of tumor formation. They inserted a fluorescent marker into zebrafish—attached to the Sp2 gene—allowing them to trace the synthesis of Sp2 throughout the organism. When the zebrafish were viewed under ultraviolet light, the Sp2 marker glowed red where the gene was expressed.

“Zebrafish are good model animals for this research because their embryos develop in a 24-hour period, and they develop externally so you can watch what is happening under a microscope,” Dr. Horowitz says. “Additionally, their Sp2 protein is the same as those found in mammals, so the function of the protein will be the same in humans as in zebrafish.”

According to Dr. Horowitz, earlier findings had suggested that Sp2 regulated development—not just of tumors, but of the organism as a whole. When the team looked at the zebrafish, they quickly saw just how critical Sp2 was to embryonic development.

“We noticed that in the adult zebrafish that carried the fluorescent marker, the ‘lights were out’ except in the ovaries of the females, which glowed bright red,” Dr. Horowitz says. “Then when the female laid her eggs they also glowed red. This told us that Sp2 must be important for the earliest stages of development. Sure enough, if we eliminated Sp2 in an embryo the embryo simply didn’t develop. We think that we’ve uncovered a fundamental mechanism for embryonic development.”
The CCMTR team’s findings will appear in the February 2010 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Dr. Horowitz believes that the fluorescent fish will help him answer another question about Sp2: whether the protein plays a role in the development of certain types of cancer.

“If Sp2 is important in the development of brain cancer, for example, and you’re using our fluorescent zebrafish to study brain tumors, then theoretically as the tumor grows you should see a bright red brain when you look at those fish under ultraviolet light,” Dr. Horowitz says. “We think that these fish may be a useful tool—an aquatic canary in the coal mine—that will allow us to detect early tumor development.”

About NC State's College of Veterinary Medicine
NC State's College of Veterinary Medicine ( is one of the top veterinary schools in the U.S. Currently ranked fifth by the U.S. News & World Report, the College features cutting edge research in multidisciplinary areas such as comparative medicine, biomedical research, food supply medicine, ecosystem health, veterinary oncology, and animal welfare. The College also treats more than 20,000 patients a year by clinicians in its Veterinary Teaching Hospital and is home to more than 300 doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM)  students. The College of Veterinary Medicine is located on NC State's Centennial Biomedical Campus.

About Centennial Campus and NC State University
Centennial Campus ( is an internationally recognized 1,314-acre research park and technology campus owned and operated by North Carolina University. Home to more than 60 corporate, government and non-profit partners, such as Red Hat, ABB, and the USDA, collaborative research projects vary from nanofibers and secure open systems technology to serious gaming and biomedical engineering. Four university college programs also have a significant presence on campus – College of Engineering, College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Textiles and the College of Education. NC State is one of the top research universities in the country, with expenditures in research approaching more than $325 million annually. The university ranks third among all public universities (without medical schools) in industry-sponsored research expenditures. (
Source:Centennial Campus at NC State University
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Tags:Veterinary Cancer, Cancer Research, Canine Cancer, Animal Cancer, Tumors, Cancer Cells
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