Toronto researchers say zebrafish may be key to new flu vaccine

By Nitish Bissonauth

Could a new influenza virus come from studying baby zebrafish? Two researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital say they might have found a way to identify the right compound to combat the flu and prevent deaths

Influenza researcher Dr. Warren Lee and Dr. Xiao-Yan Wen, who runs a robotic zebrafish facility at St. Mike’s, teamed up to pitch the idea of conducting tests with zebrafish on Angel’s Den. It’s a spinoff of Dragon’s Den on which health care innovators compete to win funding for life-changing projects.

The duo won and now has the green light to explore new compounds that could potentially prevent deaths.

“One of the greatest public health concerns right now is the threat of a pandemic influenza stream,” said Dr. Lee. “That’s the development of a strain of flu that’s really contagious and really lethal. It could potentially threaten tens or hundreds of millions of people.”

Each year, the flu kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. In 1918, 50 million people died of the virus — more than the number of people who died in the First World War. More recently, 2009’s swine flu outbreak killed as many as 575,000 people.

Health Canada said this year’s flu season is off to a rough start, with more people than usual getting sick.

So far, at least 270 Canadians have ended up in hospital because of the flu, and seven people have died.

“We need to detect new influenza drugs as soon as possible” said Dr. Lee, who revealed current influenza drugs are not as effective as they once were.

“Zebrafish can be used as a means for screening for new drugs against influenza.”

Dr. Lee said we are due for the next big outbreak and zebrafish could save us time and money in the race to save lives.

According to Dr. Lee, baby zebrafish are inexpensive, grow rapidly and, when injected with the virus, exhibited symptoms of an influenza infection — their hearts were swollen, their mobility was reduced and they were shaking.

The doctors said they’ll continue screening thousands of compounds to identify three to five promising ones that will make the fish stronger. They’ll then study their characteristics, confirm they are effective and start clinical trials on people.

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