Scientists studying the humble fruit fly have found a family of proteins that enhances the sensitivity of a cell to a hormone that can trigger abnormal growth and cancer. Their discovery could lead to a completely new approach to tackling some cancers and the development of new drugs to stop uncontrolled growth in a wide variety of tumour cells.
The researchers at the University of Oxford, funded in part by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), discovered that this family of amino acid transporters are very powerful growth promoters. When the transporters were overexpressed in a fly, its cells became hypersensitive to insulin-like molecules in the body that have a long-term role in promoting cell growth and development and the cells grew excessively.
The amino acid transporters appear to be responsive to nutrients on the surface of the cell and do not need to bring these nutrients into the cell. The action of the transporters was so significant that a defect in one of them reduces a fly's growth by about half.
Dr Deborah Goberdhan, one of the researchers involved, said, "We are now looking at whether human equivalents of these fruit fly genes act in the same way. If they do, then new drugs or even dietary advice could block their activity and slow down the growth of tumours. This research tells us more about the way insulin works and so it is furthering our understanding of processes associated with diabetes as well as cancer. We're fortunate that there are a number of groups with clinical interests in these areas in close proximity to us, which should help us assess the medical significance of our discovery."
Fruit flies are used in research because a large amount of data about them has been gathered over the last hundred years. As a simple animal with a life cycle of only two weeks, mutations are easy to generate and study. This basic research at Oxford has now attracted funding from Cancer Research UK to further investigate the processes involved and allow Dr Goberdhan to establish her own group.
Professor Julia Goodfellow, BBSRC Chief Executive, remarked, "Although research into fruit flies may not seem an immediate priority, only fundamental research such as this can provide us with the understanding that leads to new applications. New treatments for illnesses such as cancer will only be found as we increase our knowledge of basic biological processes."