The humble fruit fly and a grant from the AICR the Association for International Cancer Research - are helping a leading scientist in London identify potential targets for drugs that block the spread of cancer.
In one of the first studies of its kind, Dr Buzz Baum of the UCL Branch of the global Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR) is using the tiny fruit fly, Drosophila, as a simple genetic system in which to identify genes that may impact on the spread of human cancer cells.
He explains: "Long ago a cellular defence system evolved in our single-celled ancestors to protect them from viruses. This system, called RNAi, is still present today in humans, plants and animals. Recently, we have learnt how to harness this anti-viral system, so that we can use it to silence the function of any normal or mutant gene at will. This new technology has the potential to change forever the way researchers and doctors fight cancer and other diseases.
"By combining the benefits of Drosophila RNAi screens with the functional analysis in human cell culture models of metastasis, we expect to identify novel, conserved proteins involved in cell migration and invasion, some of which could prove to be good anti-cancer drug targets."
According to Dr Mark Matfield, AICR's scientific adviser: "Metastasis of tumours (the spread of cancer cells around the body) is the cause of mortality in the majority of human cancers and it is a complex, multi-step process. Understanding the molecular mechanisms that underlie each stage is therefore an important goal for cancer scientists. Dr Baum's research builds on his earlier work when, in collaboration with others, he completed a full study of the function of every one of the fruit fly's genes in cells. This is allowing him now to compare those to similar genes in human cell lines to help him understand why some cancer cells invade and spread to other parts of the body."