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Can the Zebrafish Help US to Search for New Pain Drugs?

Neuropathic pain is caused by injury of the central or peripheral nervous system. Neuropathic pain is difficult to treat because rarely responds to opiates.

Studying neuropathic pain in humans has major ethical and experimental limitations. The use of alternate mammalian animal models has been the solution for many years. For both human and animal studies scientists had to rely frequently on behavioral tests that may not directly reflect the experience the animal is going through.

Thus, this may be one of the reasons because our ability to treat pain symptoms still relies on a small number of drugs. This suggests that the use of other model systems may help to discovery new compounds with potential analgesic activity.

A new published study in Journal of Cellular Physiology by a team led by Dr. Antonio Giordano and Dr. Gianfranco Bellipanni of Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine and Temple University (Philadelphia, USA) adds a new prospective on the research on pain perception. They used larvae of the small vertebrate zebrafish to show that at the molecular level they respond to stimuli that induce inflammation and axons degenerations similarly to mammals.

“We found the highest temperature zebrafish larvae could survive and exposed them for only 5 seconds, the results where similar to human severe skin burns. “ Dr. Giordano said. “ Then we went to see if the panel of genes, activated by pain in humans, was activated also in the fish. Interestingly, they were activated at the right place and time”.

We asked Dr. Gianfranco Bellipanni to explain how this research could have implications for humans: “to understand better the mechanism of neuropathic pain and to discovery new drugs first we need an animal model that is easy and economic to keep, that shows a high degree of similarity in pain perception and response with mammals and is especially able to offer many technical tools for conducting studies.

Zebrafish matches all these characteristics” he said. “ Now we are creating transgenic zebrafish that became fluorescent in response to painful stimulations. These transgenic fish can be used for in vivo studies. At first we will use these transgenic fish to characterize better the cellular and molecular mechanisms of pain, but our final goal, if we will find the appropriate funding, is to use them for screening for chemicals with potential analgesic activity”.

Other authors of the study include Dr. Valentina Malafoglia and William Raffaeli both at ISAL-Foundation, Institute for Research on Pain, Dr. Marco Colasanti at University of Roma3 and Dr. Darius Balciunas at Temple University.

Dr. Antonio Giordano is Director and Founder of Sbarro Health Research Organization at Philadelphia, PA ( and Professor of Pathology and Oncology at University of Siena, Italy.

Barbara Colombo | Newswise
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