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There’s a new guinea pig in the search for sleep-related drugs: the zebrafish. Researchers at Harvard University have developed a screening tool that tests the effects of thousands of compounds on zebrafish behavior in an effort to discover new pathways that govern sleep. The research, published this week in the journal Science, may result in new drugs to treat insomnia and other sleep-related disorders.

Alexander Schier and his colleagues at Harvard developed an automated system to assess 60,000 distinct sleep-related behaviors in zebrafish, a tropical fish often used in scientific research. After screening 5,600 small molecules on the larvae, the team discovered 463 significant sleep-altering compounds, many of which have been known to have similar effects in humans.

“We didn’t expect as much conservation of the effects of drugs between humans and zebrafish,” says Schier, professor of molecular and cellular biology. “This was a proof of principle that many of the pathways found in humans are conserved in fish.”

Schier says such behavioral similarities may make zebrafish an ideal model for studying how and why humans sleep, mysteries that are largely unsolved. It’s still unclear what molecular mechanisms control sleep and wakefulness. Pinpointing these pathways, and finding drugs to block or promote them, is a major focus for many pharmaceutical companies–sleep drugs generate $7 billion in annual profits in the United States. However, the drug development process is tedious and expensive. Schier believes that testing drug candidates in zebrafish could be a cheap and straightforward alternative to conventional drug screening.

Typically, to test a drug, researchers first study its effects in cultured cells, looking to see if the drug binds successfully to a target receptor or molecule. They then advance the drug to animal experiments, testing behavioral effects in live subjects. But drugs that have certain effects in cultured cells often have unexpected side effects–or no effect–in a live animal.

“The advantage of zebrafish is that you can keep large numbers of animals in a very small space, and raise many, many animals relatively cheaply,” says Schier. Unlike flies and worms, which are often used in the early stages of pharmaceutical research, fish are vertebrates. “Much can be found in zebrafish that is relevant to mammals,” he says.

To screen the drugs, researchers pipetted single zebrafish larvae into a tiny well of a 96-well tray. Each well was injected with a drug, with one drug tested on 10 different larvae. They placed the tray in a recording chamber with infrared and white LED lights and a camera connected to computer software. After lining the tray up with a corresponding grid on the computer screen, researchers programmed the timing of light to simulate day and night. The camera recorded each fish’s activity over two days, and video tracking software plotted out each fish’s movements per second.

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Credits: Albert Pan and Alexander Schier

Tagged: Biomedicine, drugs, drug development, sleep, drug screening, screen, sleep apnea

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