Zebrafish genes may hold the key to fixing human scars

A new study based in the UK is now underway to determine if the genes of the rapidly-healing zebrafish can help people afflicted by scarring. If successful it could be life changing for millions of people.

Zebrafish genes could hold the secret to repairing human scar tissue

Last month saw the start of a new five-year study, led by researchers from the University of Bristol, into the genetics of scarring and how it can be prevented. The £1.5 million project is funded by The Scar Free Foundation and is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. It will analyse reams of population health data to determine the causing of scaring, whilst also using the rapidly-healing zebrafish as a study organism to determine the genetic components as well.  

Around 20 million people in the UK are believed to have a scar and although for most people scars are only minor inconveniences, for others they can be a major problem. In particular this study looks to help those afflicted by BCG vaccination scarring, children who have undergone cleft lip surgery, women with Caesarean section scarring and patients with internal lung scarring. Not only can these scars leave physical deformities, in addition to pain, itching and loss of movement, but also long lasting psychological damage as a result. For that reason it is The Scar Free Foundation’s aim to “achieve scar-free healing within a generation and improve the lives of those affected by scarring”.

Studying zebrafish

In order to do this the research team from the University of Bristol have turned to the genetic make-up of fish for answers. The zebrafish in particular is a species they believe can provide some answers for two main reasons. Firstly, they are rapid-healers that, for the most part, are able to regrow and repair damaged tissues without leaving any evidence of previous injuries. Secondly, they are excellent study organisms for genetic research, because their translucent skin actually allows researchers to see inside their bodies to see how genes effect their behaviour.

The unique properties of zebrafish have made them popular study organisms for genetic research

This is known as ‘live imaging’ and will allow the team to see which genes are being expressed during wound healing and scar formation, as well as provide insight into when and where potential treatments could be effective. “Live imaging studies in translucent zebrafish will allow us to see how changes to these genes affects certain cells involved in scarring and gives us an experimental window through which to watch scars being formed and to identify ways to stop this,” said lead researcher Beck Richardson, in a recent press statement.

Massive breakthrough?

If this new study, which will conclude sometime in 2025, does what it hopes to and manages to identify the genetic causes of scarring, the implications could be huge. Not only will it help people in the UK, but also across the world. It could also provide a cheaper and less invasive alternative to plastic surgery. It is unlikely that any therapies that come out of it will completely erase the issue of scarring forever, but it could help improve the lives of millions of people. It also highlights, yet again, that the marine environment can be a fantastic source of inspiration for the medical community and why protecting it is so important.

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