Pesky fruit flies save lives

The fruit fly, those tiny winged insects that cluster and circulate over fruit bowls with ripening fruit, deserve a lot more respect. Local genetics researchers are using fruit flies to understand why certain genetic mutations cause tumors, in order to study therapies that might be able to counteract the cell development of cancer.

The use of fruit flies in research was discovered over 100 years ago by scientists who were looking for an animal they could study in the lab that was cheap to reproduce, explains Dr. Esther Verheyen, professor for the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She is also a recent recipient of The Grant and Moens Award for Excellence in Genetics, recognized for her contributions to genetics research in Canada.

Dr. Verheyen is hosting a discussion on what fruit flies have taught us about cancer at Simon Fraser University’s Café Scientifique on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. She’s interested in sharing how genetics research can positively affect human health.

“All of us think of our genetics in one form or another,” says Dr. Verheyen. “If people can learn more about how genes work, and how we are quite similar across species, then we can all learn valuable things from something as pesky as a little fruit fly.”

Why fruit flies?

It turns out fruit flies and humans have a similar makeup in their cells and genes, which allows scientists to use these flies to study cell structure and disease. Dr. Verheyen is working with a team of researchers to understand how cells grow to form organs and tissues, and how abnormalities in cell production can cause diseases like cancer.

Dr. Verheyen explains that proteins called Wnts, (pronounced Wints), are found in a range of organisms, including humans, mice, and fruit flies. Abnormal levels of Wnts pathways result in diseases like cancer. The gene coding for these proteins are removed from a fruit fly to see if the Wnt pathway can be altered to prevent a disorder. This knowledge may contribute to the design of future medications and therapies to prevent diseases.

The abstract photo shows fly tissue with a tumor growing in it. The normal cells are stained purple and the green cells have too much Hipk and are growing like crazy. | Photo courtesy of Dr. Esther Verheyen

“Wnts was discovered 30 years ago,” says Dr. Verheyen. It’s a protein in our cells that tells other cells what to do. It’s able to send a message from one cell to another, telling the cell to divide and form a particular type of cell.”

Dr. Verheyen uses the concept of egg fertilization to explain the cell development process. She explains how cells rapidly multiply as the fetus grows. These cells are talking to each other to build muscle, bone and brain cells among other things. When the human body is formed, the Wnts protein becomes less active, unless there is an abnormality that triggers cell division causing tumours in the body. Having this understanding allows Dr. Verheyen and her team to explore excess cell development and how to prevent tumors.

“One cell says, I’m going to be an arm, so the next cell understands that it will become a leg,” says Dr. Verheyen. “Our cells connect and send signals to one another. Wnt is one of the signals that is part of normal development, but when you’re an adult and fully formed, our bodies aren’t doing a lot of cell division.”

Using flies to understand tumors

Fruit flies are also helping Dr. Verheyen explore the development of three-dimensional organs. Her research team is using the fruit fly eye to investigate many aspects of cell signaling that initiates tissue formation and the specifications of an organ. Through their research, they understand that the Hipk protein, (pronounced Hip-kay), is required for the regulation and growth of organs, yet too much Hipk can contribute to the growth of a tumor.

“We stumbled across Hipk twelve years ago,” says Dr. Verheyen. “Hipk helps the Wnt protein do its job. If you have an abnormal amount of Hipk, then when the Wnt is active, and you have excessive amounts of Hipk in your body, tumors can grow. If you combine these cell activities with other proteins acting abnormally in the body, the cell may signal further cell division and moving to other places in the body, which is even more severe.”

The similarities in cell structure between fruit flies and humans allows researchers to do genetic interaction studies more rapidly than other test species.

“It just takes two weeks for us to grow a fly with a tumor,” says Dr. Verheyen. “This allows us to try and reverse the formation of cells within the life cycle of the fly, which is about 10 days. That’s really rapid! However, as a researcher, we also know that there are all sorts of experiments to check what you think is happening, is actually happening.”

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