You might be tempted to call them the Z Team. No matter how one refers to the group of experts that assembled recently at Gadsden State, the members agree:
These are the players needed to achieve their specific goal of developing a curriculum to train students in caring for the small fish that is central to a large body of biomedical research.
UAB’s Animal Resource Program and Gadsden State’s Aquaculture Program partnered to put together this Zebrafish Husbandry Education Curriculum Workshop, bringing in experts in all aspects of zebrafish research including: program directors of major research institutions; industry sales representatives, who manufacture zebrafish housing systems; and businesses specializing in food for the zebrafish.
“This workshop brought together a lot of people with different kinds of expertise. There were several vets here – what we call “fish vets” – who understand the differences in caring for fish and caring for terrestrial animals,” Dr. Bill Trevarrow of Thoren Aquatics Systems, Inc. said. Not everybody understands what’s needed to care for the large number of zebrafish that labs use for biomedical research of human diseases. Four of the leading manufacturers of the zebrafish housing systems were represented at the workshop: Thoren Aquatics Systems, Inc., Aquatics Habitats, Inc., Aquaneering, Inc., and Tecniplast USA.
Eric Herbst, Research and Development Manager and Senior Biologist with Aquatic Habitats Inc. said the industrial side of the equation collaborated in the workshop because facilitating the use of zebrafish in labs is good for their industry. “It’s essential that people be trained in the proper care of zebrafish. We’ve worked to make the housing systems user friendly.”
Each of the four major U.S. suppliers of these systems donated a system to Gadsden State’s Aquaculture Program to be used to train students. Joe Sillitti, an Aquatics Solutions Specialist with Tecniplast explained that with a system from each manufacturer, students trained in the course of study being developed at Gadsden State should have experience with the system in use in any lab in the United States.
Gadsden State Community College aquaculture instructor Hugh Hammer said, “We will be the only place in the world offering this curriculum and preparing students to play this elemental role in future research. The plan for training would include online courses and a week-long hands-on skills workshop to be taught on campus.”
“The need for developing this program is so immense that these companies, UAB, the National Institute of Health, Boston Children’s Hospital, Washington University School of Medicine, and Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center went to the expense of sending representatives to Gadsden State to participate,” Hammer said.
Sillitti described the growth in the use of zebrafish as “exponential” in recent years. Labs have gone from having a closet-sized area for fish tanks to entire rooms filled with racks of tanks for zebrafish.
Eric Henry, Research Scientist and Process Engineer at Reed Mariculture Inc., said the company makes feed – specializing in the micro-organisms that are fed to infant zebrafish. He said that training in caring for zebrafish has been the bottleneck for this research model for some time.
Hammer and Dr. Sam Cartner of UAB worked diligently to bring the research and industry people together to aid in developing the new curriculum. “This is the dream team of zebrafish people,“ Hammer said.
While the participants from the industries specialize in the development of housing systems, they are also well-versed in what makes the residents of these tanks so special to researchers. This makes them a vital part of generating the curriculum.
Brendon Delbos, a representative from Aquaneering, Inc. located in San Diego, California said, “Zebrafish are quickly becoming the new lab rat for biomedical or genetic research and drug development.” Zebrafish have a number of characteristics that make them a good model for studying human disease. The fish are tolerant of crowding, handling, poor water quality, and are easy to breed in large numbers. Another advantage is that the zebrafish lays transparent eggs that are fertilized externally and develop quickly. With a quality microscope, you can see every cell division in the first 24 hours and observe the development of the brain and other organ systems. Zebrafish are vertebrates, like humans, which makes them a better model for genetic research than fruit flies, which are currently the most common research model.
Delbros expressed that he’s been involved in husbandry workshops before, but this one differs. “It’s been less about presenting results and sharing data. The time has been entirely devoted to planning the standardized training of people who can properly care for zebrafish in the numbers needed for medical research,” remarked Delbos.
Hammer noted that a trained person is needed to see that everything is being controlled properly so that researchers can concentrate on their research.