The image on the computer screen in the North Carolina Central University lab at the North Carolina Research Campus is both creepy and fascinating.
It is a creature that is green, with a giant eye, a rapidly opening and closing mouth, and what appears to be blood circulating through its veins. The moving particles seem to form a kind of trail throughout the body.
It is not a computer-generated model of an alien creature for the next Hollywood blockbuster. It is very real. It is a seven-day-old zebrafish under the microscope.
“These fish are perfect for research because in this case we can draw the vessels in the eyes so we can calculate the diameter of the eye,” says Karine Ferri-Lagneau, a research scientist at the NCCU lab. “By then combining pictures from days ago and the present, we can see the vascular and non-vascular images. So we can see if the blood vessels are growing or not growing.”
At first glance, the green creature seems to be out-of-this-world research. But it is actually very practical and down to earth. It turns out that zebrafish are important to researchers because the genes of zebrafish and humans are pretty similiar. In addition, zebrafish eggs are clear and grow outside of the mother’s body. That means scientists can watch the cells divide and form different parts of the body. Scientists can color different types of cells, proteins, enzymes and other items so they can see what happens to the fish if a cell is removed or destroyed. Also, researchers can measure the effects of drug therapies and even natural remedies.
Scientists with North Carolina Central University and North Carolina A&T University’s Center for Excellence in Post Harvest Technologies teamed up to study the bioactive compounds in a pretty common spice – ginger. You can find ginger in a variety of products, such as ginger tea, processed ginger used for baking and flavoring, and even fresh ginger root. The spice has been used for centuries to calm upset stomachs. But early results show that ginger may treat several diseases. However, not all ginger is the same.
“There’s fresh ginger and dry ginger and the bioactive compounds in both are different,” says Dr. Shengmin Sang, lead researcher on the ginger study with North Carolina A&T University’s Center for Excellence in Post Harvest Technologies. “The processing changes the compounds and a lot of people are not aware of the difference.”
The biocompounds found in fresh ginger, called gingerols, appear to improve blood circulation and help treat anemia by speeding up the development of blood vessels and red blood cells.
“It increases the blood particles, the blood flow, and would be a huge benefit for those suffering from anemia, especially cancer patients who are undergoing treatments,” says Dr. Jamil Haider, research manager with North Carolina Central University. “There are very encouraging results but we need much more work.”
However, the biocompounds in processed ginger, called shogaols, seem to aid in cancer prevention.
Researchers want to understand the chemical profiles of each type of ginger and how the body processes them. That will determine how much ginger a person would need to eat or how it would need to be formulated to gain the most benefit.
And the tiny zebrafish is the key to understanding the effects. How it all works is pretty simple. Ginger is added to the water. The zebrafish gradually consume it. Scientists record the effects.
“You can transplant human cancer cells into the fish and you can see how it is interacting with the blood vessels along with how the cancer cell metastasizes into the other organs,” says Dr. TinChung Leung, a researcher with North Carolina Central University and the scientist who cares for and raises the zebrafish. “So when we transplant the cancer into the fish, we can see how the cancer is interacting with our own immune systems. The cancer cells can be labeled in one color and you can see the transgenic immune cells in the fish.”
Thanks to the zebrafish, this tiny creature from the slow moving stream and rice paddies of India, scientists are able to start asking basic questions. Are the host immune cells actually hijacked by the cancer cells? Are the cancer cells using the body’s immune systems to spread into other organs? And because the zebrafish is transparent, scientists can see all of this happening under the microscope in real time, which provides a real advantage for research.