You don’t need a clinical understanding of muscular dystrophy to know it is a debilitating disease. While the symptoms and prognoses do differ on an individual basis, MD is characterised by defects in muscle proteins and the death of muscle cells and tissue.
For those with the disease, this means that they will suffer from a gradual wasting away of the muscles, weakening them to a point where it affects or even prohibits movement. It can also decrease a patient’s life span due to complications caused by the dystrophy of muscles that are associated with the heart and lungs. As of 2016, there is no cure or treatment for muscular dystrophy. The Currie Group, headed by ARMI Director of Research Peter Currie, is focused on understanding this ruthless disease. The knowledge they are acquiring could potentially be applied in the development of a treatment. However, this should not imply that a cure is just around the corner. As with all medical research, developing treatments is a complex and drawn out process. Even if a breakthrough occurred in muscular dystrophy research tomorrow, it is unlikely we would see a treatment available to the public in the next decade, because of the lengthy drug development and approval process.
Muscular dystrophy and the zebrafish
The Currie Groups main interest is with the danio rerio, a South East Asian fresh water fish, more commonly known as the zebrafish. Chances are you’ve seen zebrafish many times before – they are exceptionally abundant in home aquariums. However, what you may not know is that the humble little fish has a number of key advantages that researchers from the Currie group are very interested in. To begin with, zebrafish embryos are optically transparent. This means that scientists can see cells forming in the embryo. This makes it easy to work with. Furthermore, we share 70 percent of our genes with the zebrafish. This is important because the study of zebrafish relates directly to how genes function to control the development of vertebrates, a category of animals that we belong to. The Currie Group study gene function through a process known as mutagenesis, which produces mutations that disrupt gene function.
But how does this relate to muscular dystrophy?
What the Currie Group hopes to discover, in particular, is the molecular mechanisms responsible for muscle development and how disease, like muscular dystrophy, arise. Ongoing research is the only viable strategy in muscular dystrophy treatment, which makes the work that Peter Currie and his fellow scientists do extremely important for the long term care of people diagnosed with the disease.