T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) is a high-risk subset of ALL, for which there is a need for new therapeutic strategies and efficient preclinical screening methods. We have pioneered an innovative zebrafish human cancer xenotransplantation (XT) model to examine drug-tumor interactions in vivo. T-ALL cell lines and primary patient T-ALL samples were microinjected into 48-hour zebrafish embryos, a stage at which the adaptive immune system has not yet developed. Fluorescent labelling of tumor cells prior to injection and use of casper pigment mutant fish facilitates evaluation of drug response both by direct observation in transparent fish and enumeration of human cells following embryo dissociation. Proliferation rates are rapidly determined by directly counting fluorescent cells using in silico-based programs and/or utilizing immunohistochemical approaches to distinguish human cancer cells from host cell populations. T-ALL cell lines harboring defined mutations in the NOTCH1, phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K)/AKT and mTOR pathways differentially responded to targeted inhibition using the γ-secretase inhibitor Compound E, triciribine, and rapamycin, when xenografted into embryos, consistent with responses in vitro. Primary patient-derived T-ALL bone marrow samples similarly engrafted and proliferated in zebrafish embryos. Using this in vivo chemical genomic approach, a targetable mutation sensitive to γ-secretase inhibition was identified from the diagnostic bone marrow sample of a child with T-ALL, which was confirmed by exome Sanger sequencing, and validated as a gain-of-function mutation in the NOTCH1 gene by luciferase assay and Western blot. Focused chemical genomics using the zebrafish T-ALL XT model provides a means of tailoring therapy using a real time in vivo assay that more accurately recapitulates the tumor microenvironment than in vitro methods and more rapidly than mouse xenografts. Moreover, the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of this innovative platform provides a novel intermediary for the prioritization of much-needed drug candidates in the preclinical pipeline.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.