Fishing for Answers: New Insights into Childhood Brain Tumor Treatment

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Riley Evans rings a bell to celebrate the culmination of her treatment.

Why do 10,000 fish live at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI)?

It’s not because the cancer researchers wanted company. Zebrafish help them investigate more effective ways to treat childhood brain cancers.

Riley Evans was only two years old when doctors first identified the brain tumors she developed as a consequence of neurofibromatosis. The tumors were on her optic nerve, and removal would cause Riley to lose her eyesight completely. Her doctors recommended chemotherapy rather than surgery.

Rodney Stewart, PhD, an HCI research investigator, says the pressing challenge when treating childhood cancers isn’t only to help patients survive. It’s also essential to protect the child’s future quality of life. “Some current treatments are difficult because they can actually end up causing cancer in adolescence,” he says. “Radiation, a very common therapy, can cause problems later on.”

In Riley’s case, an allergic reaction to treatment made monthly hospital visits uncertain and frightening for her parents. Her mother, Brandie, says “It seemed like every month something different would happen. It’s terrifying to have a child undergo treatment that makes them so sick.”

Dr. Stewart’s research with zebrafish could change all of this. Recently, his team found that the brain tumors they created in the fish were similar to human tumors at the genetic level. Now they’ve linked certain types of fish brain tumors with specific types of childhood brain tumors.

The differences in brain tumor types present challenges for clinicians planning treatment. Different types and sub-types of tumors react differently. By creating similar tumors in fish, then studying how they respond to various treatments, researchers gain powerful insights into the most effective methods and drugs for treating humans.

Zebrafish are ideal test subjects for two reasons. Their bodies are transparent, which makes it easier for researchers to monitor the growth – or decline – of tumors. The researchers can literally see the changes. Plus, fish are inexpensive test subjects.

“Someday, I hope my team will be able to take the tumor cells from a biopsy, put them in a fish to grow, and treat the fish,” says Dr. Stewart. “Seeing how the tumor reacts to different approved drugs in the fish, we could find out which treatment will be most effective for the patient before we start treatment.”

The more specialized and targeted treatments for childhood brain cancers can be, the fewer risks and side effects there will be for kids like Riley who have lots of life to live.

“To watch your kid go through chemo for an entire year is gut-wrenching. It rips your heart out,” says Brandie. “If they could come up with something that’s not so toxic or hard… It’s really exciting to think about the things research can accomplish.”

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit