How fruit flies are helping make chemotherapy treatments easier on cancer patients

Fruit flies are an all too common annoyance, but they're also a powerful new tool for researchers at Mayo Clinic in their quest to make chemotherapy treatments easier on cancer patients.

It happens to the best of us. We let a piece of fruit get a little too ripe on the kitchen counter and before we know it we're swatting at swarms of hungry fruit flies. And they're not just gnawing away at the fermenting fruit. They're laying hundreds of microscopic eggs throughout our homes to ensure the cycle continues.

While fruit flies may be an all too common annoyance, they're also a powerful new tool in the quest to make chemotherapy treatments easier on cancer patients. More specifically, the 30 to 40 percent who suffer "enduring pain in the hands and feet," or peripheral neuropathy, in the wake of chemo treatments, reports Mayo Clinic's Research magazine, Discovery's Edge.

The magazine reports "it's not clear who is most at risk" for this chemo side effect, but Anthony Windebank, M.D., a neurologist on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus, and his team are trying to find a way to protect the nerve cells of cancer patients before they begin chemotherapy. And as Discovery's Edge reports, they're doing it with the assistance of drosophila melanogaster, also known as the common fruit fly.

Why the fly? "Many genes that contribute to disease in humans have matching genes in fruit flies," Discovery's Edge reports. "These matches between species, called 'homologs,' mean that tests on the flies can give information about the same gene in humans."

Inside Dr. Windebank's lab at Mayo Clinic, Discovery's Edge reports those tests include focusing on the fruit fly's "inborn" instinct to climb. "If the flies are knocked down, their natural instinct is to climb up the vials," research fellow Christopher Groen, Ph.D., tells the publication. "As we treat them with increasing doses of [the chemotherapy drug] cisplatin, if they are knocked down, they stay at the bottom of the vial and lose the ability to climb back up."

While studying the fruit flies and comparing what they learned to previous research, Dr. Windebank's lab team ran into a particularly "good" problem. "We were testing our control flies, and we found that one of our control strains was really, really resistant to (chemo drug) cisplatin," Dr. Groen says. Meaning, of course, it required "a very high dose of the drug to cause any climbing deficiency in the flies."

While Dr. Groen was presenting these findings at a department lab meeting, "he was approached by a colleague, Eugenia Trushina, Ph.D., who is studying a drug that affects the same mitochondrial function," the magazine reports. The two teams have since pooled their research efforts into uncovering "a way to protect patients from the nerve damage caused by cisplatin without affecting its cancer-killing ability."

All by harnessing the simplicity of fruit flies.

"There's nothing more complicated than people," Dr. Windebank tells Discovery's Edge. "So if you want to study how things work, you want a more simple system, and fruit flies are much simpler. We know their genetics. We know all the moving parts. This is a good example of how fruit fly research is extremely relevant to human disease."

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