Scientists have made huge steps toward understanding the deadly condition short bowel syndrome by developing a model of the disease to study in zebrafish in a new study.

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Short bowel syndrome can be fatal in babies. The condition is typically treated with special diets and nutritional supplements.

Short bowel syndrome is a condition that occurs when a section of the small intestine is either missing or damaged at birth or removed during surgery. A shortened small intestine can result in the bowel not having enough surface area to absorb nutrients properly, leading to malnutrition, dehydration and sometimes death.

Some patients can increase their ability to absorb nutrients by increasing the bowel’s surface area in response, in a process known as adaptation. However, the mechanics behind this process are poorly understood.

“We and others have struggled to understand adaptation in order to improve our patients’ lives,” says first author Dr. Kathy Schall, of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA). She explains that researchers are only able to look at tissue from humans at various times when they need surgery, and other research models are both difficult to use and expensive.

“The new solution from our lab is to study the intestines in small fish that could fit onto a dime,” says principal investigator Dr. Tracy C. Grikscheit, of The Saban Research Institute at CHLA.

Zebrafish are sometimes used by researchers investigating stem and progenitor cells as their cells have many similarities with human cells and have a high capacity for regeneration.

“Even though the fish are tiny, under a microscope, we are able to perform the same surgery that is performed on children with short bowel syndrome,” Dr. Grikscheit explains. “And even better, we have pioneered a way to show the resulting changes in the anatomy through three-dimensional imaging of the fish, with higher resolution than some scans available to human patients.”

With three-dimensional imaging of the fish, the researchers could watch any changes occurring in the bowel after the surgery, allowing them a new insight into what happens in human patients that could lead to new solutions to the problem of short bowel syndrome.

“The three-dimensional reconstructions of these fish shown in our publication make it clear that the changes in the fish intestine after this surgery are just like those seen in the babies we care for,” says Dr. Grikscheit.

In the zebrafish, the researchers were able to observe the process of adaptation closely. They noted a marked increase in progenitor cells 2 weeks after surgery was performed.

Another benefit to studying short bowel syndrome in the zebrafish was that the researchers could analyze the mechanisms of adaptation by dosing the fish with drugs through adding compounds to the water in their tank. This method was considerably easier and less expensive than previous approaches.

The video below provides a sample of the three-dimensional imaging used by the researchers to examine the insides of the zebrafish.

The discoveries made in the study, published in the American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, could lead to further research into identifying the signaling pathways that promote adaptation and the specific cells that grow quickly.

More data in these areas could one day lead to better care for babies with intestinal failure – the ultimate goal for Dr. Grikscheit. “As a pediatric surgeon, my lab has only one goal: to find better options for children with short bowel syndrome,” she states.

This study is not the first that Medical News Today has reported on involving zebrafish. Researchers previously suggested that a lack of vitamin E could cause damage to the brain after studying zebrafish fed a diet deficient in the vitamin.