The healing power of fruit flies |

The healing power of fruit flies

Brianna Cook
Updated: February 18, 2020 03:47 AM
Created: February 17, 2020 07:25 PM

(ABC 6 News) -- It seems like we hear about new groundbreaking research at Mayo Clinic nearly every day. Sometimes, though, it’s how that research is done that’s the most surprising.

Teri Woodhull has been getting cancer treatment for years.

“I was diagnosed in November 2010 at the age of 47 with advanced ovarian cancer,” said Teri.  

The past ten years have been a roller coaster for Teri and her family.

“There have been times I’ve been so weak I couldn’t get out of bed,” she recalls.

From clinical trials to becoming cancer-free, only to get it again; Teri has been through it all. Now she’s getting maintenance treatment at Mayo Clinic. However, as if cancer and the chemotherapy weren’t enough to go through, Teri also has to deal with a side effect of her cancer drugs; peripheral neuropathy, or nerve damage.

“I don’t have any feeling in the tips of my fingers so I can’t do things that require sort of that small movement. I can’t thread a needle anymore. I can’t manipulate certain things. In my feet, I have a difficult time walking great differences,” said Teri.

She’s not alone. According to Mayo Clinic researchers, about 30% of people who receive certain platinum-based cancer drugs get nerve damage. For about half of them; it’s permanent.

“In a quarter to a third of them, it’s more disabling than the cancer was originally,” said Dr. Anthony Windebank. He’s a Mayo Clinic neurologist and is in charge of a research lab. He and his team are working to fix that side effect. However, it’s how they’re fixing it that might seem a bit unusual.

“We actually share about 60% of our genes with fruit flies,” said Dr. Windebank.

Dr. Windebank said fruit flies are a little like humans.

“The whole life cycle of a fruit fly is about three weeks. You can induce this kind of nerve damage in the fruit flies by feeding them the drugs that we use to treat people. In two or three days they’ll get nerve damage that prevents them from flying properly. We can study what’s going on in their brains that’s causing the problem but also we can test new kinds of therapies as well,” explained Dr. Windebank.

Working with such a tiny test subject isn’t exactly easy.

“Probably one of the most difficult things has been getting the drug into the fruit flies. You can’t inject flies; they’re too small. You have to find ways to get it in their system,” said Dr. Windebank.

The researchers solved that problem by turning cancer drugs into fly food. Once it’s in their system, though, how do you figure out how many flies get nerve damage? Well, they did that using a specially-made apparatus. The flies go into test tubes and go into the machine. The machine taps the tubes to get the flies to fall to the bottom. Then, a camera monitors the flies as they climb back up the tubes and a computer tracks it all.

After about seven years of that, there have been some breakthroughs.

“We’ve actually discovered the particular part of the mitochondrial mechanism that if you alter it a little bit, it prevents the damage in the fruit flies. So we found a way to prevent the damage in the fruit flies. Now what we’re trying to do is find things that would prevent it in fruit flies, that would then we could use in patients,” said Dr. Windebank.

After Teri’s diagnosis, she joined the team at MOCA, or the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance. To Teri, cancer research of all kinds is important, even if it’s done with a pest.

“Who would have thunk, fruit flies? You sort of say that seems like a strange connection that fruit flies would have something in common with us. I think it’s fascinating,” said Teri.

While it does seem strange, the eventual goal is to make the lives of cancer patients and survivors easier.

Research in areas like this is just critical to help people maintain some semblance of a quality of life. At the same time, trying to treat cancer the best you can. So it’s exciting to me that we actually have research dollars that are being spent on that,” said Teri.

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