Flies help unlock cancer clues

A common fly is helping La Trobe University researchers to uncover some of the secrets of cancer progression in humans.

La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) researchers Helena Richardson and Patrick Humbert have discovered a gene in vinegar flies that can accelerate cancer growth.

Dr Richardson said the same gene was also present in humans.

“Flies share around 70 per cent of the same disease-causing genes as humans,” Dr Richardson said.

“Any findings we make in flies are therefore relevant to humans.”

The researchers have found the gene works with the Ras protein, one of the most deadly drivers of cancer, to accelerate disease progression in lung and pancreatic cancers.

“How this occurs and how the gene cooperates with the Ras protein to accelerate cancer progression is still unknown,” Dr Richardson said.

Dr Humbert said the team was using vinegar flies to understand cell polarity – how the shape and structure of cells control their function.

“We have evidence the gene regulates cell polarity,” Dr Humbert said. “Abnormal cell shape and polarity is one of the earliest hallmarks of cancer and understanding the pathways that regulate these processes is critical to understanding cancer development.”

The group has received a $300,000 grant from Cancer Council Victoria to continue their work.

Dr Richardson, Dr Humbert and LIMS colleague Dr Marc Kvansakul are now collaborating with Professor Josef Penninger from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Austria to identify the mechanisms by which the gene affects cell shape and cell communication.

“We hope our research will identify new diagnostic and therapeutic tools that will aid us in the fight against cancer,” said Dr Richardson.

Media contact: Anastasia Salamastrakis 0428 195 464