TGen, HonorHealth use zebrafish to help fight pancreatic cancer

They share most of our genetic makeup, are transparent and are prolific breeding machines. We're talking about zebrafish. They're about 2 inches long and a creature best known as an aquarium pet. Thanks to research right here in Phoenix, they may also hold the key to surviving one of the most deadliest forms of cancer.

"I was diagnosed January of 2015 and they told me the cancer was so advanced that there was so little time left that I should go and get my affairs in order," said Saundra DeMey Forrest.

Three years ago, Saundra was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. She was told she had two months to live, but now her cancer is inactive and her prognosis is good.

"From the day I walked in the door, hope was back," she said.

Saundra has the doctors at HonorHealth Research Institute in Scottsdale to thank, but also, at least in part, these little fish -- and the work done at TGen in Phoenix to find new ways to fight cancer.

"Zebrafish we use to generate models for developing new therapeutics," said Dr. Haiyong Han, professor and head of TGen's molecular medicine division.

Zebrafish are native to fresh water streams in Asia, but these Zebrafish are born and live their lives at TGen.

"The cool thing about zebrafish is their genes are similar to human genes, so we can look at different mutations in the fish to see if that promotes or prevents pancreatic cancer," said TGen staff scientist Dr. Kimberly Brothers.

Dr. Brothers makes sure the fish are well taken care of.

"We give them brine shrimp twice a day. They also get flake food," she said.

And because they're transparent, they can be observed without dissection. From their very tiny beginnings, through a full life as adults years later.

"We can look at the migration of the tumor cell to help us get a better understanding of cancer," said Dr. Brooks.

New procedures developed in labs like this one and others can be tested on these fish. Before being used in human clinical trials, like this one at HonorHealth in Scottsdale.

"We work so closely with our colleagues, with TGen and our other partners around the world to understand about the disease itself, pancreatic cancer and bring it to our patients here," said Dr. Erkut Borazanci, an oncologist at HonorHealth.

TGen and HonorHealth have a special relationship -- testing drugs used successfully on zebrafish as part of a clinical trial program on humans.

"Not only do they get to have a chance to live longer, they get a chance to celebrate anniversaries, grandkids, kids and that is a huge reward for us to see that," said Dr. Borazanci.

"I got to do my granddaughter's makeup for homecoming, which isn't a big thing for anybody else, but for a grandmother it is," laughed Saundra.

HonorHealth and TGen labs will share a National Cancer Institute grant worth more than $5 million. They hope it will result in an early detection test for pancreatic cancer within the next five years.