STEM Career Tours

Inspiring the pursuit of science, technology, engineering and math literacy, skills, and careers.

Category: Biology

Did you know Zebrafish Embryos are Transparent?

On November 18, 2016, AP Biology students from Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School participated in a STEM Careers Tour which included a visit to the Department of Developmental Biology at the University of Pittsburgh. Specifically, students were able to interact with Dr. Michael Tsang, an associate professor who is currently conducting research in Pitt’s zebrafish aquaria. In the zebrafish facility, one of the largest in the world, researchers are engaging in multiple large-scale projects which use the zebrafish to understand how organs such as the liver, kidney and heart develop in the embryo.

The visit began with a presentation by Dr. Tsang, during which he explained his research and the benefits of experimenting with zebrafish. Students learned that zebrafish are ideal subjects for experimentation because they are small and easily maintained, embryos are transparent and easily visualized during development, and they are able to repair and regenerate damaged tissue. All of the students were fascinated when they learned that, after a few weeks at the bottom of the tank, zebrafish that have sustained a severed spinal cord are able to repair the damage and regain mobility!

After this presentation, students were able to experience a tour of the zebrafish aquaria, which contains over 11,000 tanks housing over 500,000 zebrafish. While touring the facility, students asked a wide variety of questions about the logistics in place to maintain such a large research lab, and they learned that while the tanks are self-cleaning, university employees spend several hours each day feeding the fish. The rows of tanks with tiny, newly-hatched fish were a highlight of the tour, but the students were most intrigued by the fluorescent green zebrafish. These genetically modified fish carry the gene for Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), which allows researchers to better identify abnormalities, such as those that lead to Alzheimer’s Disease.

Most importantly, students engaged in dialogue with Dr. Tsang about both the benefits and ethical obligations of animal testing. The visit to the lab, and particularly this conversation with Dr. Tsang, ignited a desire in many of the students to pursue ongoing research with zebrafish. Sixteen AP Biology students from Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic are preparing experimentation results currently being conducted with both adult and embryonic zebrafish for entry into the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair! Mrs. Murray classroom is becoming its own zebrafish aquaria and the contacts she made on the tour have become mentors in her ongoing efforts to make biology come to life for all her students.


Sharp Edge Labs at the Cutting Edge

Written by Alex Hoehn and Lena Clerici

Our A.P Biology was honored with visiting three biology based laboratories. Sharp Edge Labs was one of our stops, and our favorite stop of the day. Sharp Edge Labs is a small company who specializes in discovering drugs to treat genetic disorders of protein trafficking. Being able to meet such a compelling and intelligent scientist such as Dr. Scott Sneddon only increased our interest in the field of biology and ensured that this is the field that we want to pursue. The way he spoke about very complicated subjects was very interesting and we could not help but listen to every word he said and actually understand. Sharp Edge labs is a breakthrough company and we are sure that we will be hearing about them in the future.  Even our AP Biology teacher, Mrs. Amy Murray, walked away with the statement, “that actually changes how (even what!) I teach.”

Sharp Edge Labs has launched a patient-driven program with the purpose discovering drugs that prevent or reduce the effects of faulty protein trafficking due to monogenic diseases. These monogenic diseases encompass disorders such as Cystic Fibrosis, Muscular Dystrophy, and Gaucher’s disease. The root cause of these conditions is a due to a defect in one gene caused by improper protein trafficking. Other companies used gene replacement therapy to replace the defective enzyme, permitting proper function. However, Sharp Edge Labs is taking a new route in the journey to accomplish the same goal. Rather than using gene replacement therapy, they are using the “small-molecule” approach. The size of the molecule causes no hindrance when traveling towards the target.

These molecules are targeted towards deformed proteins with the purpose of reconstructing the damaged proteins. Reconstructing the damaged proteins allows proper protein trafficking to resume. Protein trafficking is a “lock and key” task. Each signal chemical has a 3D specific counterpart receptor. If this protein receptor is damaged, the protein does not receive the signal; therefore, the protein does not perform its necessary function, sometimes leading to the aggregation of proteins. This break in the chain of commands results in diseases such as Gaucher’s as well as ALS.

Today, in Sharp Edge Labs patient program, when a patient enters the trial, a sample of the patient’s cells are used to determine which compounds should be properly used to restore protein trafficking. This approach provides more effective treatments earlier than if the patient was given the compound upon beginning the trial. Sharp Edge Labs currently is running three different trials; Cystic Fibrosis: CFTR Trafficking, Lysosomal Storage Disorders: Trafficking Assays, and Trafficking Defects in Parkinson’s Disease.

We were able to experience and learn about a drug discovery program that has the potential to revolutionize the medical treatment industry. Contrary to the what we thought as we began the day, these profound discoveries are not only made by companies with large research and development departments. Rather, small companies such as Sharp Edge Labs have the capability to make these types of discoveries.

If someone is interested in studying medicine/biology, we would highly recommend visiting Sharp Edge Labs located in Pittsburgh, Pa. It helped us to realize that even the most devastating diseases can be prevented and our future as biologists can save many lives in the process. For such a small company, their attention to detail and pride in what they are doing is inspiring to us and to many others. They are a very diverse team who wants people of different mindsets to come up with various ideas on how to treat many fatal diseases. They truly want to help people in need, and that quality is attractive to many people. Overall, the trip to Sharp Edge Labs was our favorite of our three trips and gave us an insightful view of how the medical industry is evolving.


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