Boston Children’s Used Zebrafish to Test a New Bone Marrow Transplant Technique

The study says a compound called EETs could lead to more reliable transplants.


Zebrafish tagged to glow red or green. Photo provided to

You might expect to see zebrafish at the aquarium. But at Boston Children’s Hospital? Not so much. However, thanks to a new study, that’s exactly where the fish might make their biggest claim to fame.

A team of Boston Children’s researchers, led by senior investigator Leonard Zon, used zebrafish to test a compound called epoxyeicosatrienoic acids (EETs), that could prevent the body from rejecting bone marrow transplants. Using a lab-created, transparent strain of fish, Zon and his team flagged their marrow to glow either red, if untreated, or green, if infused with EETs. Then, they injected both types of marrow into other zebrafish to see which strain engrafted better. Nearly every fish eventually glowed mostly green, suggesting that EETs facilitate a much more effective marrow transplant.

The psychedelic appearance of the fish led the researchers to dub the study “The Dr. Seuss Experiment,” but it’s not just a whimsical visual effect—Zon said in a statement that EETs could make their way to human trials for cancers and blood disorders in just a couple of years. And by using zebrafish to test the drug instead of mice, Boston Children’s conducted what could have been a $3 million study for about $150,000.

Beyond avoiding transplant rejections, better engraftment through EETs could also allow hospitals to make better use of the easy-to-harvest stem cells found in umbilical cord blood. Doing so could up the chances of both a successful infusion and finding a donor match, Zon said in the statement:

“Ninety percent of cord blood units can’t be used because they’re too small,” explains Zon, who directs the Stem Cell Research Program at Boston Children’s. “If you add these chemicals, you might be able to use more units. Being able to get engraftment allows you to pick a smaller cord blood sample that might be a better match.”