In the drug discovery pipeline, safety pharmacology is a major issue. The zebrafish has been proposed as a model that can bridge the gap in this field between cell assays (which are cost-effective, but low in data content) and rodent assays (which are high in data content, but less cost-efficient). However, zebrafish assays are only likely to be useful if they can be shown to have high predictive power. We examined this issue by assaying 60 water-soluble compounds representing a range of chemical classes and toxicological mechanisms.
Over 20,000 wild-type zebrafish embryos (including controls) were cultured individually in defined buffer in 96-well plates. Embryos were exposed for a 96 hour period starting at 24 hours post fertilization. A logarithmic concentration series was used for range-finding, followed by a narrower geometric series for LC 50 determination. Zebrafish embryo LC 50 (log mmol/L), and published data on rodent LD 50 (log mmol/kg), were found to be strongly correlated (using Kendall's rank correlation tau and Pearson's product-moment correlation). The slope of the regression line for the full set of compounds was 0.73403. However, we found that the slope was strongly influenced by compound class. Thus, while most compounds had a similar toxicity level in both species, some compounds were markedly more toxic in zebrafish than in rodents, or vice versa.
For the substances examined here, in aggregate, the zebrafish embryo model has good predictivity for toxicity in rodents. However, the correlation between zebrafish and rodent toxicity varies considerably between individual compounds and compound class. We discuss the strengths and limitations of the zebrafish model in light of these findings.