Fly Bayou: The tiny fruit fly helps researchers in the fight against cancer

Louisiana scientists at the LCRC explain fruit flies and humans share many of the same cancer-related genes
Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 10:41 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -In a room that is part-laboratory, part-kitchen, Cai Costa cooks up a special recipe.

Costa, a research assistant at the Louisiana Cancer Research Center, describes the end product as having a ‘pudding-like consistency.”

Among his ingredients are Soy flour, cornmeal, yeast, and syrup.”

“Flies like sweet things,” Costa explained.

The fly food will sustain untold thousands of ravenously hungry adults and larvae in lab rooms at the LCRC.

“Fruit flies have been used by scientists for decades,” said Prescott Deininger, Ph.D., Director of the Tulane Cancer Center and Co-Director of the LCRC.

The center, across Tulane Avenue from University Medical Center, is a public-private partnership of LSU, Tulane, Ochsner, and Xavier University.

The fruit fly, or Drosophila melanogaster by its scientific name, has become a model for cancer research only in recent decades.

“It’s estimated more than 75 percent of the human disease genes you can find a match (in fruit flies),” said Jun-yuan Ji, Ph.D., who earlier this year was recruited by Tulane’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Texas A&M.

To laypeople, fruit flies scattered on a tray under a microscope appear dead. In fact, researchers give them a dose of CO2 to put them to sleep.

Using the microscope and a small brush, they sort the flies based on gender or other differences.

“Many of the important findings in biological science are first made in flies,” said Wu-Min Deng, another Ph.D. who Tulane lured from Florida State University in 2019.

Deng explained the flies provide a unique opportunity to address how cancers form and how they progress.

“Basically, they’re just a great way to make some early genetic discoveries,” Deininger said.

From here, promising research might move onto laboratory tests in mice, for example.

However, fruit flies can be stored-- and for that matter-- fed, more easily than larger and more complex creatures, turning a year into weeks.

“They can generate thousands of flies at a relatively inexpensive cost,” Deininger said. “Whereas, to generate thousands of mice for a project is extremely expensive.”

Fruit flies have also been used in research on other diseases, from diabetes to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

“They are simpler,” Ji said. “That’s why you can use this as a discovery tool to figure out what has a major factor.

Ji came to the United State from China, studying the process by which animals and plants grow and develop.

“My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and she passed away the same year I received my Ph.D.”

The loss of his mother prompted him to switch his research focus to cancer biology.

“This process is actually very similar between Drosophila and humans, but much simpler in flies,” Ji said.

That could mean isolating a gene that causes cancer or trying some new treatment not yet ready for humans.

“Into the fly food, for example, you can add some drugs to study the effect of those drugs on flies,” Costa said.

Researchers from the LCRC share their work with counterparts from other institutions across Louisiana.

In the fly community, Deng said, they call this collaboration “Fly Bayou.”

The cooperation continues in an academic setting at the LCRC, where researchers talk to doctors working with patients, theoretically leading to faster clinical trials on patients.

“Mostly, I see it as a way to discover new things very quickly that might be relevant,” Deininger said. “Some of them might not pan out, but an awful lot of them do.”

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