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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 Stem Cell Cell. Here she tells us more:

Flies, why flies?

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, 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.

What is your project about?

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.

How has the work been progressing? Any notable results?

Our recent discovery, was published in Cell Stem Cell, last month.  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.

How important has our funding been?

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.

Read more in our latest blog.