August 2001

From Northeastern University

NU scientist finds answers in Antarctic icefish

BOSTON, Mass. --– It’s mid-July and professor Bill Detrich of Northeastern University's department of biology hasn't seen the sun in days. Situated at Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula during the height of the Antarctic winter, he trawls among glaciers and icebergs for the 15 species of icefishes, the only vertebrate taxonomic group that does not produce red blood cells or hemoglobin.

While most of the world took warmth and natural light for granted last month, Detrich and his colleagues were finding out firsthand how the icefishes survive and thrive without a normal oxygen transport system, and how their genetic makeup may eventually help treat blood diseases in humans.

Why sacrifice a glorious Boston summer for the dark and cold of the greater South Pole area? Professor Detrich knows the potential applications that the study of icefishes can offer: lacking red blood cells and living only on the oxygen dissolved in their blood, the Antarctic icefishes provide a unique model system for determining the genetic regulation of blood cell formation. "Since the genetic program for blood cell formation is conserved from fish to humans," says Detrich, "we can use these ‘bloodless’ fishes to discover novel human genes that are required to produce red and white blood cells."

Detrich hopes to develop his discoveries into new treatments for blood-related diseases and diagnostic probes for blood disease identification. Major therapeutic targets include anemias and neutropenias associated with cancer or kidney dialysis treatment, disorders of iron metabolism in red cells, and many leukemias.

Currently, the lack of a rapid, unbiased, genome-wide scan for components of blood forming pathways hampers the gene identification approach for developing therapeutic agents targeted to these diseases and conditions.

The Antarctic fish model solves this problem and permits construction of libraries enriched in blood cell formation genes. Potential discoveries using the Antarctic system include receptors and factors that regulate red and white blood cell development, growth, and differentiation.

Now back home in Boston, Detrich, a Northeastern professor for 14 years, hopes that his time spent catching the fish and using biomedical technology to isolate their proteins and genes will lead to licensing of this technology. "We have uncovered several very interesting, and previously unknown, blood-related genes using our technology, and we are anxious to evaluate their therapeutic and diagnostic potential," Detrich said.

Eventually, Detrich’s winter sojourns to the dark, cold, windy, and snowy Antarctic may help those afflicted with blood disorders to enjoy many more happy days in the sun.

Boston-based Northeastern University, a private research institution, is a world leader in practice-oriented education. Building on its flagship co-operative education program, Northeastern links classroom learning with workplace experience and integrates professional preparation with study in the liberal arts and sciences.











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