The translucent minnow-sized fish will help scientists discover how a protein found on the surface of immune cells causes them to attack the central nervous system (CNS) in multiple sclerosis.
The research, undertaken at the University of Edinburgh and funded by the MS Society, will track where and how a protein - named CD46 – controls the movement of immune cells into the brain.
In MS it appears that this protein may not be activated properly, but research has only been conducted in a test tube providing limited information.
In this new project, researchers will use zebrafish to learn more about immune cell activity by fluorescently ‘labelling’ the CD46 protein, making it easy to track inside the fish.
Zebrafish are often used in research because of their transparency, their genetic similarities to humans and their ability to reproduce and develop quickly.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological condition where immune cells attack the coating of nerves in the CNS preventing messages travelling between the brain and the body. MS affects 10,000 people in Scotland and more than 100,000 people in the UK.
MS symptoms include sight loss, pain, fatigue, incontinence and disability. The condition is unpredictable - one day you can be fine, the next you might lose your sight or be unable to move. The MS Society is funding research to beat MS and is at the start of a generation of MS research that holds incredible promise.
A growing body of research suggests that a lack of vitamin D could be linked to MS.
The Edinburgh team, led by Dr Anne Astier, will also look at whether vitamin D can influence the movement of the zebrafish’s immune cells into the brain. Scotland has among the highest prevalence of MS in the world. Some experts have linked this to the lack of naturally occurring vitamin D because of the nation’s scarcity of sunlight.
Dr Sorrel Bickley, Head of Biomedical Research at the MS Society, said: “With over 10,000 people in Scotland living with MS, it’s vital we continue to fund innovative research to understand what causes the condition. Discovering how this protein acts in people with MS - by cleverly tracking its movement in zebrafish - could lead to the development of more specific treatments for MS with fewer side effects.”
Dr Anne Astier, Academic Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, added: “We’re very excited to be involved in this new research as it will be the first time we can observe this protein operating in a living organism.
“By putting a fluorescent CD46 protein in this tiny fish - with the help of zebrafish specialist Dr Dirk Sieger - we’ll be able to observe how the protein operates. This could help us find a way to stop it functioning abnormally as observed in people with MS.”
Researchers are receiving a grant of just under £37,000 from the MS Society to fund the work.