Using flies to find treatments against cancer

IRB Barcelona and the BBVA Foundation bring together a select group of international researchers who use the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to study cancer.

Cancer research owes a great deal to a tiny insect, Drosophila melanogaster, also known as the fruit fly. Drosophila provided the model system in which the first tumor suppressor was discovered, and several of proteins implicated in cancer have also been first identified in this fly. Using Drosophila, researchers were able to establish a relationship between stem cells and formation of tumors. Now Drosophila are also being used to discover new drugs to treat cancer.

150 researchers from across the world will meet in Barcelona to discuss the most recent advances in cancer research using Drosophila. The Barcelona BioMed Conference “Modelling cancer in Drosophila”, organized by the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) and the BBVA Foundation, is coordinated by Cayetano González, ICREA researcher at IRB Barcelona, and Helena Richardson, from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Australia. The conference will take place on September 14-16 at the Institut d’Estudis Catalans (IEC).

The value of a fly

Drosophila has been used as a tool in biological research for more than a century and research using the insect has collected five Nobel Prizes in Medicine. It may seem surprising that such a small insect could be so useful in understanding human diseases and finding ways to prevent and cure them, but studies in genetics have demonstrated that the principles found in the fruit fly often apply to higher organisms, including humans. Using Drosophila as a model system also has a series of advantages for research: it takes only 10 days for a new generation to grow, their genetic makeup is well known, and they are cheap to obtain and grow: hundreds of flies can be grown in just a few days.

“The fruit fly as a model system may be limited in terms of being able to directly lead to a cure for cancer, but sometimes it is the only organism available in which do preliminary experiments that will allow us to later develop therapies in humans. For example, specific proteins related to human diseases were identified for the first time in Drosophila as well as the fundamental signalling pathways that are compromised in cancer", explains Cayetano González. His laboratory demonstrated in 2005 that a change in a basic step of cell division in stem cells produces malignant tumors. The results of these studies are now being tested in rats.

In recent years the fruit fly has become an important “test tube” to study the viability of cancer fighting drugs in vivo. “Developing drugs against cancer is a long process that can last between 10 and 20 years. We can use Drosophila to verify several aspects of these molecules and shorten the development timeline. For example, we can test the toxicity of a compound, how quickly it degrades in the digestive tract, or whether or not it can cross cell membranes,” explains González. Many biotech companies use Drosophila to screen and filter molecules that might help treat human diseases, a fact which underlines the valuable role that the insect plays in biomedical research.

Among the researchers taking part in the conference are Ross Cagan (Mount Sinai School of Medicine, USA), whose work aims to develop a drug that directly affects tumor progression; Ginés Morata (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain) who studies cell suicide and tumor transformation; and María Domínguez (Instituto de Neurociencias de Alicante, Spain) whose work focuses on the genes that govern the development of organs and tissues and how cancer can occur when these processes are disturbed. A total of 26 experts will speak at the conference, 12 of whom work in leading laboratories in the US, 9 in Europe, 3 in Asia and 2 in Australia.

Related links:
Modelling Cancer in Drosophila, Barcelona BioMed Conference
Cell division laboratory