Dalhousie University Medical School has opened a new research lab to study treatments used to fight diseases like cancer and the star attraction is a fixture in many home aquariums.

Thousands of zebrafish will be used as models for the study. The fish share many genes with humans and reproduce in large numbers so they provide efficient and cost effective research subjects.

Dr. Jason Berman says the bigger lab holds 75,000 fish and he hopes it will shorten the time to test treatments for childhood cancers.

The research involves injecting donated human cells into fish embryos. Scientists can watch what happens inside the fish's systems using a transparent variety of zebrafish called Casper.

Laboratory manager Chansey Veinotte says the small, simple structure of the fish actually make them ideal for study.

“That simplicity is at our advantage when we’re doing cancer research or any other disease research,” he said. “We can look at a lot of things in one view. We can put cancer cells into the fish or we can give different fish different diseases and we can watch them progress. That’s something we don’t get to see in humans.”

Berman says researchers can see what is happening inside.

Dr. Jason Berman

Dr. Jason Berman says the bigger lab holds 75,000 fish. (CBC)

“The fish, when their embryos are transparent, allows us to visualize things very easily in terms of what is happening inside the fish,” he said.

“So many of the studies we do, we put human cancer cells into the fish and treat them with drugs by just exposing the fish to the drug and the water and we can see the responses.”

Veinotte says the study is particularly valuable in cancer research.

“We often will capture cancer cells, slowing, moving and integrating into the tissue and that is why cancer patients lose their battles because cancers spread.”

The $1.8 million facility is one of the largest zebrafish labs in the country and scientists studying there hope the research will lead to more precise individualized cancer treatments in the future.