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Fruit fly studies open new window on cancer research

29 September 2005

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.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

This story appear in the October 2005 edition of Business, the quarterly magazine of research highlights from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). BBSRC Business carries stories about the activities of the Research Council and highlights from its research portfolio.

The research was originally published in Development, 132, 2365-2375 (2005) PAT-related amino acid transporters regulate growth via a novel mechanism that does not require bulk transport of amino acids, Deborah Goberdhan, David Meredith, Richard Boyd, Clive Wilson.

Dr Deborah Goberdhan and her colleague, Dr Clive Wilson, have been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Dr Goberdhan collaborated with Dr David Meredith and Dr Richard Boyd who were funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The University of Oxford team have been awarded two three year grants totalling almost £150,000 per annum from Cancer Research UK to continue the research.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK's vision is to conquer cancer through world-class research.

The charity works alone and in partnership with others to carry out research into the biology and causes of cancer, to develop effective treatments, improve the quality of life for cancer patients, reduce the number of people getting cancer and to provide authoritative information on cancer. Cancer Research UK is the world's leading independent charity dedicated to research on the causes, treatment and prevention of cancer.

For further information about Cancer Research UK's work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit http://www.cancerresearchuk.org

External contact

Dr Deborah Goberdhan, University of Oxford

tel: 01865 282662

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299
fax: 01793 413382

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382