Transparent zebrafish help scientists follow unfolding heart disease

March 6th, 2009 - 11:49 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, March 6 (IANS) Fish are helping researchers understand how heart disease unfolds, potentially opening the way to new drugs to slow disease and prevent heart attacks.
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) scientists at its School of Medicine have done to zebrafish in the lab exactly what many people still do to themselves - added excess cholesterol to their diet.

Because the species are transparent, researchers were able to see - literally - the development of plaques in their blood vessels. The study was led by Yury I. Miller, associate professor of medicine at UCSD.

“The use of this transparent zebrafish model is a promising method to screen for new drugs and cardiovascular imaging agents,” said Miller.

Atherosclerosis is a process of thickening and hardening of the artery walls as a result of fat deposits and inflammation. Risk factors for atherosclerosis include high levels of “bad” cholesterol, high blood pressure (or hypertension), smoking, diabetes and a family history of the disease - all of which can lead to heart attack or stroke.

Extreme hyperlipidemia, or the presence of excess fat and cholesterol molecules in the bloodstream, has been induced in mice and rabbits in the past, but microscopic examination of plaque build-up was only possible post-mortem.

Miller and colleagues fed a high-cholesterol diet (HCD) to zebrafish, supplementing the HCD with a red fluorescent lipid.

“Because zebrafish are transparent for the first 30 days of life, we can see in the living fish that the blood vessels glow green, while the fat deposits in vascular plaques are red,” said Miller.

He added that, interestingly, the zebrafish on a high-cholesterol diet did grow little fat fish stomachs, according to an UCSD release.

These findings are scheduled for publication in the April issue of Circulation Research, published by the American Heart Association.

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