Michele Markstein, UMass Amherst – Fighting Cancer with Fruit Flies

Michele Markstein

Michele Markstein

Because of their speedy reproductive rates, fruit flies are exceptionally useful for scientific experimentation. We’ve seen it before: here & here.

Today on The Academic Minute, UMass biologist Michele Markstein explores their use in improving chemotherapy treatment in the hope of fighting cancer.

Michele Markstein is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her research focuses on understanding the basic properties of stem cells that can contribute to cancer. Her laboratory employs the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism, which her lab uses to develop genetic and chemical strategies to understand stem cells, the stem cell microenvironment, and cancer processes. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

 Fighting Cancer with Flies


Chances are you haven’t given much thought to fruit flies. If asked, you might conjure a picture of them hovering over rotting bananas, perhaps even in your own kitchen. You probably would not imagine flies helping to find new drugs to fight cancer.

But that’s exactly what we are attempting to do with flies in our lab. Humbling as it may be, on a molecular level flies don’t look that different from us: they have many of the same genes and cell types.

Now, the flies you may see in your kitchen don’t have cancer. But in the laboratory we can genetically modify them with human genes, causing them to grow tumors. In a recent paper we showed that expressing a human cancer-causing gene called the “RAF oncogene” in stem cells of the fly, produces huge tumors. Importantly, we show that these tumors shrink when flies ingest FDA-approved chemotherapy drugs. This is exciting because it suggests that if we find new drugs that shrink tumors in flies, they might also work in people.

On the flip side, our results also point to a side effect of chemotherapy drugs in flies that may likewise apply to us. Specifically, we found that cells in the fly intestine respond to some chemotherapy drugs by secreting growth factors related to human IL-6 cytokines, which activate an inflammation pathway. In flies this drives stem cells in the intestine to hyperproliferate, which is one of the early hallmarks of cancer.

The good news is that our discovery of this chemotherapy side effect provides a new opportunity to improve chemotherapy. Indeed we are now using flies to find drugs that can block side effects in the stem cell microenvironment.

So, when you see fruit flies buzzing about your kitchen, don’t think of them as mere pests. They may help save lives someday.

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