Could a common insect be the key to developing customised cancer treatments?

Chimpanzees and other members of the primate family are the animals that come to mind when we think of humankind’s closest relatives. But there’s another unlikely creature with which we have a surprising amount in common — the vinegar fly.

We might not share their distinctive red eyes, fleeting lifespan or penchant for loitering around rotting fruit, but we do share about 60 per cent of the same DNA and 75 per cent of the same disease genes.  

In the last century, six Nobel prizes across the fields of physiology and medicine have been awarded to scientists for breakthroughs made with the assistance of vinegar fly research. Now, ANU researchers believe these flies could be instrumental in developing new and effective treatments for brain cancer.  

According to the Cancer Council, about 1,900 people were diagnosed with brain cancer in Australia in 2021 alone. Unfortunately, their prognosis is poor. The chance of surviving at least five years after diagnosis is estimated at just 22 per cent.  

Dr Olga Zaytseva (left) and Professor Leonie Quinn in their lab at ANU, Canberra. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Professor Leonie Quinn says scientists have hit a roadblock in developing new brain cancer treatments and innovative approaches are needed if researchers are to find a cure.

“We have not seen a significant improvement in the survival rates of brain cancer patients for more than 30 years,” Quinn says. “If you’re diagnosed with primary brain cancer, it’s pretty much a death sentence.”  

But the work of Quinn and her team promises to forge new treatment pathways, with the hope of better outcomes for people diagnosed with brain cancer.  

One treatment doesn’t fit all  

The team at the ANU John Curtin School of Medical Research is using vinegar flies to study how different genetic mutations contribute to brain cancer.

Vinegar flies have genes that match to those altered in various cancers found in humans, as well as conditions including diabetes, autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Their growth and development are also controlled by the same molecular mechanisms as ours, which is why their genes have been studied more than any other animal’s over the last 120 years.  

There are more than 40 main types of brain tumours, categorised as either benign or malignant. When someone is diagnosed with brain cancer, they could be affected by any of the different subtypes, all of which are defined by distinct mutations.  

The researchers’ goal is to move from the one-treatment-suits- all approach to cancer, which has traditionally been chemotherapy, to tailored treatment options that target the individual’s specific type of mutation. This would help cancer specialists offer their patients a form of treatment that’s most likely to be effective for their condition, giving them the best chance of survival.

“The aim is to take a patient’s data to a doctor and say ‘okay, they have mutation A, therefore treatment B works best for that mutation’,” Quinn says. 

Dr Olga Zaytseva looks at vinegar flies under a microscope. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Great gains from mini brains  

The vinegar fly is helping ANU scientists better understand how different genetic mutations contribute to brain cancer. Each cancer mutation has a unique effect on the body and is distinguished by its own ‘barcode’, Dr Olga Zaytseva explains. The team is hoping to find the right treatments to match respective barcodes.  

“Mutations can behave differently from one another and if we can predict how each one will cause the cancer to grow, we can gain a better understanding of how to treat them,” Zaytseva says.  

“We can use the fly to mimic the progression of brain tumours and show that the cancerous genes in humans are the same ones driving cancer growth in the fly,” Quinn adds. “The challenge then will be how to bridge the gap between the cancer models we’ve developed using the fly and replicate them in humans.”  

To bridge that gap the researchers plan to use labgrown mini brains, or so-called ‘brain organoids’, which mirror the structure of a human brain and contain all the same cells.

Using the barcode data they’ve gathered from the vinegar fly, they will test how particular subtypes of cancer behave when injected into the mini brain. From there, they will experiment with drugs approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration to see which, if any, are effective at killing off the cancer cells while leaving the rest of the brain unharmed.  

Ultimately, Quinn and Zaytseva’s objective is to build a comprehensive database containing information about the functional importance of these different mutations to help patients in the clinic.

“If we are successful, the goal would be to then move onto human trials,” Zaytseva says. “And hopefully one day the data we’ve collected can be used to treat cancer in patients.”  

After more than three decades of unchanged survival outcomes for brain cancer patients, the new hope this research offers is generating a buzz. 

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