Tiny Insects Reveal Some Big Secrets in Cancer

Tara Haelle

November 02, 2021

Uncontrolled growth isn't the only way cancers wreak havoc on the human body. These aggregations of freely dividing cells also release chemicals that can cause damage from a distance. But pinning down how they harm faraway healthy tissues isn't straightforward.

Fortunately, biologists can turn to the tiny fruit fly to address some of these questions: This insect's body is not as complex as ours in many ways, but we share important genes and organ functions.

Fruit flies already are a crucial and inexpensive animal for genetics research. Because their life span is about 7 weeks, investigators can track the effects of mutations across several generations in a short period. The animals also are proving useful for learning how chemicals released by malignant tumors can harm tissues in the body that are not near the cancer.

One recent lesson from the fruit flies involves the blood-brain barrier, which determines which molecules gain access to the brain. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that malignant tumors in the tiny insects release interleukin 6 (IL-6), an inflammatory chemical that disrupts this important barrier. The investigators showed that the tumors act similarly in mice.

When the scientists blocked the effects of IL-6, both the fruit flies and the mice lived longer. Even if cancer cells persisted, damage related to IL-6 could be diminished.

Fruit flies and mice are only distant relatives of each other and of humans, and the relevance of this discovery to human cancers has not been established. One hurdle is that IL-6 has many important, normal functions related to health. Researchers need to learn how to target only its unwanted blood-brain barrier effects.

Dev Cell. Published online October 11, 2021. Abstract

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.