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Studying the eyes of fruit flies to fight cancer

By Tim Sandle     Sep 19, 2014 in Science
Mutations in the human retinoblastoma protein can cause a form of eye cancer. To try and understand what is going on at the genetic level, researchers have begun studies in fruit flies.
The first question that arises is: why study fruit flies? There are two reasons. First, the fruit fly is easy to maintain, has large numbers of offspring, and grows quickly. Secondly, the fruit fly shares with humans a number of so-called “master,” or homeotic, genes. This means that studying the formation of genes in the fly provides valuable information about what is happening in people (it is often called “the model organism”).
The second question is: what has the research found? By evaluating mutations of increasing severity, the research team are of the view that they have a model to better predict how the retinoblastoma protein (the trigger for eye cancer) reacts with each type of mutation.
The idea is that if medics find similar mutations in people, then they can predict what will happen with the protein and attempt to redress it. Although any kind of drug treatment is many years away, simply unlocking the genetic basis of eye cancer represents a major step forwards.
The most common sign of retinoblastoma is an abnormal appearance of the pupil (sometimes termed “amaurotic cat's eye reflex”). Other signs include deterioration of vision, a red and irritated eye with glaucoma, and faltering growth or delayed development.
The research is being conducted at Michigan State University. The research to date has been published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, in a study titled “Integrated Stability and Activity Control of the Drosophila Rbf1 Retinoblastoma Protein.”
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