Sept. 12, 2016Vol. 47, Issue 1

Biology Lab Goes Fishin’

Professor's laboratory searches for a cure

Dave Stachura examines a tank of zebrafish in his Holt Hall lab. 

Surrounded by Petri dishes, beakers, and microscopes, a handful of students are trying to stick tiny needles into wriggling striped fish no bigger than a paperclip.

Don’t worry, it’s all in the name of science and the payoff could be huge. Working under the guidance of Dave Stachura, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, they’re attempting to make new blood—that’s right, make new blood—from the cells of zebrafish. 

In 2014, Stachura came to Chico State and founded Stachura Laboratory to research blood cell production in hopes to make progress in treatment for leukemia, sickle cell anemia, and other blood disorders. As an undergraduate at Lehigh University, he partook in related research but it wasn’t until graduate school that he really grew interested in what’s now his main focus on hematopoiesis, aka blood cell formation, and how the body regulates and continues its production throughout a person’s life.

“When these things are screwed up, you get all kinds of diseases,” he said. “When I went to grad school (at the University of Pennsylvania)…my PhD mentor was working on blood and I thought, ‘this is the coolest thing ever.’”

Now he wants to share that enthusiasm with his students and perhaps identify a cure or two while they’re at it. As someone who benefited from a great deal of laboratory experience while working on his postdoctoral research at UC San Diego, Stachura said he sees value in how Chico State tries to ready all students to work in a professional, real-world setting.

“Every single biology class we have has a laboratory component, so students are getting reinforcement in how to do the techniques and how to think and how to perform science,” he said. “We’re not just teaching. We’re not just lecturing. The students are actually getting to do science, and it really is not the case at other schools…I think people don’t appreciate that.”

Biological sciences graduate student Jesse Smith examines a zebrafish through a microscope.

Biological sciences graduate student Jesse Smith examines a zebrafish through a microscope.

Biological sciences graduate student Jesse Smith is attempting to find out more about what causes leukemia in his thesis. If successful, Smith’s research could help break ground for more progressive leukemia treatments, which is one of the lab’s many goals.

“Let’s say you have leukemia that’s caused by some kind of mutation in stem cells. I could take those stem cells and fix them—I could use genetic recombination to change those genes,” Stachura said.

However, the team’s year-round research in the Holt Hall lab could go beyond the realm of potential cures for blood-related illnesses—like discovering how to make more of a person’s own blood in a lab or hospital, which could nearly eliminate the need for blood donation.

Imagine you’re in the hospital and about to have a routine surgery. If Stachura Laboratory is successful, you could be confident that a bag of your own blood has been created and will be waiting to roam your circulatory system should something go wrong and you need a blood transfusion.

As if progressing toward new medical treatments isn’t a cool enough reason for students to want to work in the lab, they actually run the operation themselves. Stachura encourages both graduate and undergraduate students to work independently but not hesitate to ask for guidance.

“A lot of labs don’t give undergrads independent research,” said Smith. “Dave does a really good job of giving our grads and undergrads independent projects and having them think through it to the best of their abilities.”

Chico State junior Grace Prator fills vials in Stachura Laboratory on campus.

Chico State junior Grace Prator fills vials in Stachura Laboratory on campus.

The experience is mutually beneficial, said Stachura, pointing to students like Julian Aggio (BS, Biological Sciences, ’16). His curiosity led the team to discover that during peak mating times, zebrafish like blue light as opposed to red, green, or normal lighting. Happily fornicating fish mean more eggs and more fish—five times the normal amount, Aggio noted—to use for experiments.

Aggio’s light project was recently featured in a manuscript, coauthored by Stachura and Smith, and recently submitted to Zebrafish—a scientific journal centered on its namesake. It is currently under review.

As for the future, Stachura is teaching embryology this fall, Smith is teaching human anatomy while finishing his thesis, and the students working in Stachura Laboratory are pressing on in their search for scientific breakthroughs in blood cell development.

About to embark on a gap year before medical school, Aggio said he recognizes how his time in the lab and at the University helped him advance in his journey to become a plastic surgeon.

“If anything it’s helped me redefine the kind of surgeon I want to be. I don’t want to be the kind to just slice and dice—I like to do research, too,” he said.

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