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.

They’re attempting to make new blood—that’s right, make new blood—from the cells of zebrafish. Dave Stachura, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, founded Stachura Laboratory in 2014 to research blood cell production in hopes to make progress in treatment for leukemia, sickle cell anemia, and other blood disorders.

Assistant Professor Dave Stachura has students utilize zebrafish as a model system since their blood cells are similar to a human's.

Assistant Professor Dave Stachura has students utilize zebrafish as a model system since their blood cells are similar to a human’s.

“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,” he said. “You could do this for sickle cell anemia, too. You could just fix the defect in the globin gene that causes the cells to sickle, then you could put it back in and you could cure this disease.”

Jesse Smith, a Chico native and biological sciences graduate student, 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.

“I’m studying a certain kind of white blood cell and specifically I’m looking at a protein that I suspect is involved in the disease,” said Smith.

The current blood cancer treatments could change if Jesse Smith pinpoints a problematic protein within white blood cells.

The current blood cancer treatments could change if Jesse Smith pinpoints a problematic protein within white blood cells.

However, the year-round research done 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 would nearly eliminate the need for blood donation. So imagine you’re in the hospital about to have a routine surgery. You can be confident that a bag of your own blood has been created and will be waiting to roam your circulatory system for the first time should something go wrong and you need a blood transfusion.

As if progressing towards 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.”

Opening up the lab to undergraduate research has paid off. Stachura points to students like Julian Aggio (BS, Biological Sciences, ’16), who came up with an innovative idea to aid their research. His curiosity lead them to discover that during peak mating times zebrafish like the blue light turned up as opposed to red, green, or normal lighting. So happily fornicating fish mean more eggs and more fish—five times the normal amount, Aggio noted—to use for experiments.

Julian Aggio revolutionized egg production among the zebrafish held in Holt Hall with his creative light project.

Julian Aggio revolutionized egg production among the zebrafish held in Holt Hall with his creative light project.

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

As for what the future holds, Stachura and the students working in Stachura Laboratory will continue to press on in their search for scientific breakthroughs in hematopoiesis.

With fingers crossed, Smith hopes his thesis pans out so he can not only graduate this summer, but also publish his findings and begin teaching at Chico State and Butte College in the fall semester.

About to embark on a gap year before attending medical school, Aggio said he recognizes how his time in the lab and at the University has 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.

Good thing he’s already used to working with a lot of blood.