NIH SBIR Grant Funds Zebrafish Research

The zebrafish’s small size, low maintenance costs, short generation time and numerous other factors makes it an important vertebrate experimental model; it also has physiological similarities to humans, making it ideal for drug screening.

Oct. 14, 2020Hung Cao, electrical engineering and computer science assistant professor, has won a National Institutes of Health grant to further his research on electrophysiology assessment in zebrafish. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II award from the NIH’s Office of Research Infrastructure Programs advances Cao’s work with startup Sensoriis, Inc., which develops sensing solutions to address health care problems. The two-year $1.5 million grant includes a $477,394 sub-award that will directly fund Cao’s research. 

Zebrafish, which have physiological similarities to humans, have long been used for understanding human cardiac and neurological systems. They’ve also been used for drug screening. Their small size, low maintenance costs, quick regeneration, conserved genome and optical transparency make these vertebrates ideal for experimental models.  

Doctoral student Tai Le works on a system that can record electrophysiological signals from four fish simultaneously for over an hour.

Current physiological screening methods for these tiny creatures involve anesthesia, which can cause variations in functionality. Additionally, there are no systems available that can monitor multiple fish simultaneously. And because data processing and analysis have always been conducted manually, large-scale studies have proven impossible. 

Cao’s current SBIR project focuses on creating novel devices and systems that can provide reliable electrocardiogram (ECG) and electroencephalogram (EEG) data from both adult fish and larvae; building cloud-based systems that can process, interpret and study large-scale data; and designing cardiac and neurological studies, as well as drug screening methods that use zebrafish models and the study’s novel tools. “Because we will include both ECG and EEG assessment in zebrafish, we can study both cardiac and neurological disease,” he said.

SBIR is a highly competitive program that encourages domestic small businesses to explore their technological potential and engage in federal research and development with the goal of commercialization. 

– Anna Lynn Spitzer