Fishing for answers: Dr. Jason Berman explores leukemia and potential new treatments in zebrafish
As a pediatric hematologist/oncologist, Dr. Jason Berman sees children with leukemia every day. Thankfully, the vast majority have a treatable form of the disease known as acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It’s the 20 per cent who suffer from acute myelogenous leukemia that inspire Dr. Berman to work overtime in his zebrafish research facility at the IWK Health Centre.
“Acute myelogenous leukemia is the most difficult-to-treat form of leukemia,” explains Dr. Berman, who joined Dalhousie Medical School and the IWK from Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital in 2005. “Only slightly more than half of these children can be cured through current therapies.”
Dr. Berman is looking for answers in zebrafish – small striped fish that are remarkably similar to humans in their genetics and physiology. “Zebrafish develop blood cells in much the same way as humans,” he notes. “By studying blood-cell development in zebrafish, we hope to pinpoint the genetic changes that lead to leukemia.”
Dr. Berman is studying a number of chromosomal fusions that result in abnormal gene signals and seem to drive AML in humans. He is introducing these abnormalities into the fish to create zebrafish models of the human disease. Next he will test a host of potential anti-AML agents in these models, to identify effective new therapies.
A strong believer in collaboration, Dr. Berman is sharing his zebrafish expertise with the regional research community, while building new research partnerships. Among various projects, he is working with Dr. Patrick Lee to examine the effects of DNA damage in transgenic zebrafish models.
Also committed to clinical, health services and population research, Dr. Berman has pulled together laboratory and clinical geneticists, adult and pediatric clinicians, and clinical laboratory directors, to form the Cancer Genetics Research Group. This group is studying the increased incidence of certain cancers in Maritime families. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues are evaluating clinical practices across Canada, to identify the most effective ways of diagnosing, treating and monitoring pediatric leukemias and lymphomas.
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