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Why are scientists buzzing about flies?

We recently caught up with Dr Allison Bardin from the Institut Curie in Paris, France. She is using fruit flies to understand how cancer begins, and recently published her findings in Cell Stem Cell. Here she tells us more:

Flies, why flies?

Flies, more specifically fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster), are an excellent genetic model for humans. You might not think this when looking at a fly and a person next to each other, but they actually have a lot of genes in common. Fruit flies have already been used in research for over 100 years, and as a result there are lots of genetic tools available that helps us to study them. Flies have been behind many seminal genetic discoveries. They have helped increase our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, autism, diabetes and cancer to name a few.

It’s much cheaper to raise large numbers of flies than a few cages of mice, so it’s a good public investment to fund this research. Also, flies don’t require a lot of space, so we can use several hundred in our experiments, which makes our studies more statistically sound.

Can they really tell us about human cancer?

Cancer develops because of mutations to our genes. A lot of cancer research focuses on studying genetics and understanding how changes to our genes cause cancer. [Many Worldwide Cancer Research projects focus on understanding the very basics of cancer.] Because flies are great for studying genetics, they are also a very good model for cancer research.

How did you start doing research with flies?

My research has always been related to cancer in some way. My first research project, learning how cells divide, was carried out in yeast, another good model organism for cancer research. My next project was using flies, because I wanted to study how cells interact with each other during development. Yeast is only made up of one cell, so this research would not have been possible in yeast.

I am interested in the origin of cancer – where does it all begin? I am studying stem cells, which are amazing 'starter cells’. They can multiply and change into any of the wide variety of cells that exist, depending on where they are in our body. For cells to become cancer cells, several genetic mutations have to happen. Likewise, if mutations happen within a stem cell, it can become a cancer stem cell. This has far more serious implications. Stem cells and cancer stem cells live for a long time, and will produce a vast number of cancer cells over their lifetime. Scientists also think that cancer stem cells are at the origin of new tumours that appear many years after successful cancer treatment.

I believe it is important to understand stem cells in order to understand cancer. We are trying to discover how stem cells respond to DNA damage and how different environmental factors may play a role in spontaneous mutations. This might lead to new ideas about preventing cancer.

How did you end up applying to Worldwide Cancer Research?

We had submitted this proposal 5 or 6 times to different funding bodies, mainly within France, but the answer was always no. I think it was hard for others to believe we had found something so extraordinary that had been overlooked. This is why we really struggled to get funding to continue our research.

In desperation, I was scouring the internet for funding sources, when I came across your website. Then I found out that you had funded a colleague and good friend of mine, so I had hope for my project.

There aren’t a lot of funding bodies that accept applications from across Europe, so I was thrilled when I realised I could apply to Worldwide Cancer Research.

Worldwide Cancer Research provided funding at a really critical moment; this money meant the difference between pursuing this research, or putting it aside as a series of interesting observations that we didn’t follow up.

I think it’s a fantastic cancer charity; they are willing to take risks, and take on scientific questions that are not mainstream, from anywhere in the world. This was the case with our project, which was a bit out of the ordinary, so we are really happy that you funded us.

You can watch Dr Bardin talk about her funding journey.

What makes your project so out of the ordinary?

In science you focus on the average, what happens the majority of the time. Something that happens only some of the time, most people would ignore. We found mutations that were only happening in about one in ten flies. Nobody realised that we could find these spontaneously occurring mutations, that we would find them quite so often, or that we could study these mutations. We had some really exciting observations that nobody else had seen before or understood.

How has the project been progressing? Any notable results?

Our recent discovery actually came while doing other experiments. These results were published in Cell Stem Cell last month. More specifically, we had been looking at stem cells in the fly intestine, to see if we could identify mutations that can lead to cancer.

Our research has shown that as the flies get older, spontaneous mutations happen surprisingly frequently. These mutations are changing the normal conditions within the gut, causing cells to divide faster than normal. By analysing these mutations, we have found that some of them result in chromosome rearrangements that share features with those seen in cancers.

Excitingly, this provides a simplified model system with which we can now ask many outstanding questions, such as, how does the environment affect spontaneous mutations in adult stem cells? Our findings will hopefully shed light on the early stages of cancer, when mutations first start. There are many “next steps” that we must now take using this system.

What drives you as a scientist – what do you want to achieve?

At a fundamental level, like many scientists, I am driven by wanting to know how processes work. In particular, in the lab, I like unexpected results that suggest mechanisms that would not have otherwise occurred to us.

My work over the past few years has centred around trying to understand adult stem cells. How are they regulated? What genes are required to control them? The work supported by Worldwide Cancer Research grew out of an observation that we had while trying to understand these questions. In our attempt to explain an unusual observation, we stumbled upon the finding that genes were more frequently spontaneously mutated that we would have imagined.

In terms of what I would like to achieve: I hope that our work will be useful for the future work of others. I feel that this is important not only for data that is of very broad interest for a wide audience, but also for findings that may be of immediate direct interest to a more limited audience. In science, it is difficult to know how our work may eventually impact others and lead to truly novel insight.

And finally – where do you hope cancer research will be in 20 years’ time?  What do you think the treatment of cancer will be like for the next generation?

I think it’s about taking small steps and moving in the right direction. The media have probably said a 100 times that cancer has been cured. It’s about people realising science is made in baby steps. Things are moving forward but it’s difficult, and it’s a slow march. In 10 or 25 years I’m not sure we’re going to be able to cure all cancers, but I think there will be a better understanding of the basics of cancer, about genetics and how genetics control cancer. Certainly at the basic science level we understand a lot more already. Hopefully this will be informative for treatments and for different types of cancer.

We are excited by Dr Bardin’s project and believe in the power of the humble fruit fly, even if they do buzz annoyingly around our fruit bowl. Here’s hoping they can help be the answer to cancer. To sponsor flies used in this project text WORLDWIDE to 70004 to donate £10.*

*DISCLAIMER: Donations may not actually go on the flies in this project but will go towards cancer-beating research.

Further information

We are also funding Professor Helena Richardson at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Australia, who is using fruit flies to find new breast cancer drugs.

If you want to find out more about the research using yeasts, you can read about Dr Philip Zegerman's work studying how cells control of copying of DNA.

2 responses to “Why are scientists buzzing about flies?”

  1. […] couple of weeks ago we highlighted Dr Allison Bardin’s work on fruit flies. We’ve been fascinated by these tiny creatures and how they are used in cancer research. To […]

  2. […] couple of weeks ago we highlighted Dr Allison Bardin’s work on fruit flies. We’ve been fascinated by these tiny creatures and how they are used in cancer research. To […]

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