Regenerative Medicine: New Clue from Fish about Healing Spinal Cord Injuries

Zebrafish Spinal Cord

Caption: Tissue section of zebrafish spinal cord regenerating after injury. Glial cells (red) cross the gap between the severed ends first. Neuronal cells (green) soon follow. Cell nuclei are stained blue and purple.
Credit: Mayssa Mokalled and Kenneth Poss, Duke University, Durham, NC

Certain organisms have remarkable abilities to achieve self-healing, and a fascinating example is the zebrafish (Danio rerio), a species of tropical freshwater fish that’s an increasingly popular model organism for biological research. When the fish’s spinal cord is severed, something remarkable happens that doesn’t occur in humans: supportive cells in the nervous system bridge the gap, allowing new nerve tissue to restore the spinal cord to full function within weeks.

Pretty incredible, but how does this occur? NIH-funded researchers have just found an important clue. They’ve discovered that the zebrafish’s damaged cells secrete a molecule known as connective tissue growth factor a (CTGFa) that is essential in regenerating its severed spinal cord. What’s particularly encouraging to those looking for ways to help the 12,000 Americans who suffer spinal cord injuries each year is that humans also produce a form of CTGF. In fact, the researchers found that applying human CTGF near the injured site even accelerated the regenerative process in zebrafish. While this growth factor by itself is unlikely to produce significant spinal cord regeneration in human patients, the findings do offer a promising lead for researchers pursuing the next generation of regenerative therapies.

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Cool Videos: Regenerating Nerve Fibers

If you enjoy action movies, you can probably think of a superhero—maybe Wolverine?—who can lose a limb in battle, yet grow it right back and keep on going. But could regenerating a lost limb ever happen in real life? Some scientists are working hard to understand how other organisms do this.

As shown in this video of a regenerating fish fin, biology can sometimes be stranger than fiction. The zebrafish (Danio rerio), which is a species of tropical freshwater fish that’s an increasingly popular model organism for biological research, is among the few vertebrates that can regrow body parts after they’ve been badly damaged or even lost. Using time-lapse photography over a period of about 12 hours, NIH grantee Sandra Rieger, now at MDI Biological Laboratory, Bar Harbor, ME, used a fluorescent marker (green) to track a nerve fiber spreading through the skin of a zebrafish tail fin (gray). The nerve regeneration was occurring in tissue being spontaneously formed to replace a section of a young zebrafish’s tail fin that had been lopped off 3 days earlier.

Along with other tools, Rieger is using such imaging to explore how the processes of nerve regeneration and wound healing are coordinated. The researcher started out by using a laser to sever nerves in a zebrafish’s original tail fin, assuming that the nerves would regenerate—but they did not! So, she went back to the drawing board and discovered that if she also used the laser to damage some skin cells in the tail fin, the nerves regenerated. Rieger suspects the answer to the differing outcomes lies in the fact that the fish’s damaged skin cells release hydrogen peroxide, which may serve as a critical prompt for the regenerative process [1]. Rieger and colleagues went on discover that the opposite is also true: when they used a cancer chemotherapy drug to damage skin cells in a zebrafish tail fin, it contributed to the degeneration of the fin’s nerve fibers [2].

Based on these findings, Rieger wants to see whether similar processes may be going on in the hands and feet of cancer patients who struggle with painful nerve damage, called peripheral neuropathy, caused by certain chemotherapy drugs, including taxanes and platinum compounds. For some people, the pain and tingling can be so severe that doctors must postpone or even halt cancer treatment. Rieger is currently working with a collaborator to see if two protective molecules found in the zebrafish might be used to reduce or prevent chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy in humans.

In recent years, a great deal of regenerative medicine has focused on learning to use stem cell technologies to make different kinds of replacement tissue. Still, as Rieger’s work demonstrates, there remains much to be gained from studying model organisms, such as the zebrafish and axolotl salamander, that possess the natural ability to regenerate limbs, tissues, and even internal organs. Now, that’s a super power we’d all like to have.


[1] Hydrogen peroxide promotes injury-induced peripheral sensory axon regeneration in the zebrafish skin. Rieger S, Sagasti A. PLoS Biol. 2011 May;9(5):e1000621

[2] Paclitaxel-induced epithelial damage and ectopic MMP-13 expression promotes neurotoxicity in zebrafish. Lisse TS, Middleton LJ, Pellegrini AD, Martin PB, Spaulding EL, Lopes O, Brochu EA, Carter EV, Waldron A, Rieger S. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Apr 12;113(15):E2189-E2198.


Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Learning About Human Biology From a Fish (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Sandra Rieger (MDI Biological Laboratory, Bar Harbor, ME)

NIH Support: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Snapshots of Life: Fish Awash in Color

Skin cells from a genetically engineered zebrafish

Credit: Chen-Hui Chen, Duke University

If this image makes you think of a modern art, you’re not alone. But what you’re actually seeing are hundreds of live cells from a tiny bit (0.0003348 square inches) of skin on the tail fin of a genetically engineered adult zebrafish. Zebrafish are normally found in tropical freshwater and are a favorite research model to study vertebrate development and tissue regeneration. The cells have been labeled with a cool, new fluorescent imaging tool called Skinbow. It uniquely color codes cells by getting them to express genes encoding red, green, and blue fluorescent proteins at levels that are randomly determined. The different ratios of these colorful proteins mix to give each cell a distinctive hue when imaged under a microscope. Here, you can see more than 70 detectable Skinbow colors that make individual cells as visually distinct from one another as jellybeans in a jar.

Skinbow is the creation of NIH-supported scientists Chen-Hui Chen and Kenneth Poss at Duke University, Durham, NC, with imaging computational help from collaborators Stefano Di Talia and Alberto Puliafito. As reported recently in the journal Developmental Cell [1], Skinbow’s distinctive spectrum of color occurs primarily in the outermost part of the skin in a layer of non-dividing epithelial cells. Using Skinbow, Poss and colleagues tracked these epithelial cells, individually and as a group, over their entire 2 to 3 week lifespans in the zebrafish. This gave them an unprecedented opportunity to track the cellular dynamics of wound healing or the regeneration of lost tissue over time. While Skinbow only works in zebrafish for now, in theory, it could be adapted to mice and maybe even humans to study skin and possibly other organs.

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Bright Lights, Cool Science

Photo of the developing brain of a live zebrafish

Photo Credit: Jennifer Peters, Ph.D., and Michael Taylor, Ph.D. at the Cell and Tissue Imaging Center at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

This may look like a tangle of holiday lights, but it’s actually a peek inside  the developing brain of a live zebrafish. NIH-supported researchers created this award-winning picture by labeling the brain’s endothelial cells with fluorescent proteins and then using a confocal microscope to snap 3-D images as the cells assembled into the blood-brain barrier. So why are these guys taking photos of fish brains? They want to gain a better understanding of how the blood-brain barrier develops. And that’s  important because a major hurdle in the treatment of many brain disorders is figuring out better ways to move drugs and other therapies from the bloodstream and into the brain.