Stanford researchers create diabetic fruit flies in lab

STANFORD, Calif. - Researchers at Stanford University Medical Center have created fruit flies with a condition that mimics human diabetes. Although it's a big evolutionary leap from flies to humans, the researchers say their tiny diabetic "patients" will help scientists understand how insulin-releasing cells develop - a first step toward replacing cells lost in human diabetes.

"The idea is that the more you know about normal development the better chance you have to make stem cells develop into insulin-producing cells," said Eric Rulifson, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in developmental biology and lead author of a paper due out in the May 10 issue of Science.

Insulin's normal role in the body is to help muscle, liver and fat cells take up sugar from the blood and use it for energy. In Type I diabetes (also known as juvenile diabetes), the immune system destroys pancreatic cells that produce insulin. Without insulin, sugar accumulates in the blood, damaging the eyes, kidneys, blood vessels and nerves, and preventing the body from converting sugar to energy. People with Type I diabetes must inject insulin in order to survive.

One potential cure involves using stem cells to generate replacements for the lost insulin-producing cells. The problem is coaxing those stem cells to develop into pancreatic cells rather than some unrelated cell type. To entice those cells down the correct developmental pathway, researchers need to know how the cells normally develop.

This is where the fruit fly excels, said Roel Nusse, PhD, professor of developmental biology and co-author on the paper. Although flies are less complicated than humans, they retain the same basic biological process and are much easier to study. "There are many examples of functions that are conserved between flies and humans," said Nusse, who is also an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

As an example, Nusse points out that one branch of the immune system is

Contact: Amy Adams
Stanford University Medical Center

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