Zebrafish could help treat human spinal cord injuries

Faculty of Science
Headshot of Professor Tuan Bui wearing a lab coat while standing in front of zebrafish tanks, and his students Emine Topcu Can (MSc candidate) and Stephanie Gaudreau (PhD candidate) posing in front of the biofilter plant wall in the FSS building on uOttawa campus.
Have you ever thought of the similarities you share with zebrafish? On the surface, zebrafish and humans appear to be polar opposites, yet according to numerous studies, they share about 70% of protein-coding genes. In addition, many neurons in the spinal cord of zebrafish are also found in humans, making zebrafish powerful tools in biomedical research.

Professor Tuan Bui from the uOttawa Biology Department and Brain and Mind Research Institute, uses computational models to understand the zebrafish spinal cord. This research has the potential to advance our understanding of how the human spinal cord operates, which would be valuable to develop new treatments for spinal cord injuries in humans. The spinal cord contains neurons that play an essential role in allowing most of our movements, such as walking, running, swimming and even typing. Consequently, when an individual suffers a spinal cord injury, they can experience a loss of movement due to their inability to access those neurons.

A strong focus of current spinal cord research is on studying individual neurons from the spinal cord to establish their role. Prof. Bui and his team were among the first to study how the many types of neurons in the spinal cord work together in zebrafish – a much simpler model than humans. They used computational techniques that involved modelling the zebrafish spinal cord at different developmental stages to simulate how all the neurons work together to allow the fish to swim. This was accomplished by creating a code that connected individual neurons together in patterns observed in zebrafish. Through this method, they discovered the potential role of one population of neurons in controlling how long a fish swims. Further research is required to determine whether these neurons are also present in mammalian spinal cords, including humans. Once his group characterizes the spinal cord neurons responsible for locomotion, Prof. Bui hopes to find a way to target those neurons to help restore movement in individuals suffering from spinal cord injuries or diseases of the nervous system. 

Prof. Bui recognizes the crucial role that his collaborators played in this important discovery by admitting that “all the credit goes to my graduate students”. His major collaborators included Yann Roussel (former PhD student), Stephanie Gaudreau (current PhD student), Mohini Sengupta (postdoctoral fellow from Prof. Martha Bagnall’s lab at Washington University) and Emine Topcu Can (current MSc student). He also encourages young researchers to open themselves up to the spirit of collaboration as it “accelerates the potential for new and exciting discovery”. Professor Bui embodies this himself as his zebrafish model is online and free to access for all researchers in the field. He hopes to provide the community with the necessary tools to accelerate research on the mysteries of the human spinal cord.

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