Scientists Used Fruit Flies to Quickly Develop a Personalized Cancer Treatment for a Dying Man

Genetically engineered fruit flies are being used in early research to screen novel combinations of cancer drugs for individual patients.

(© Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikipedia Commons)


Imagine a man with colorectal cancer that has spread throughout his body. His tumor is not responding to traditional chemotherapy. He needs a radically effective treatment as soon as possible and there's no time to wait for a new drug or a new clinical trial.

A plethora of novel combinations of treatments can be screened quickly on as many as 400,000 flies at once.

This was the very real, and terrifying, situation of a recent patient at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. So his doctors turned to a new tactic to speed up the search for a treatment that would save him: Fruit flies.

Yes, fruit flies. Those annoying little buggers that descend on opened food containers are actually leading scientists to fully personalized cancer treatments. Oncology advances often are more about about utilizing old drugs in new combinations than about adding new drugs. But classically, the development of each new chemotherapy drug combination has required studies involving numerous patients spread over many years or decades.

With the fruit fly method, however, a novel treatment -- in the sense that a particular combination of drugs and the timing of their administration has never been used before -- is developed for each patient, almost like on Star Trek, when, faced suddenly with an unknown disease, a futuristic physician researches it and develops a cure quickly enough to save the patient's life.

How It Works

Using genetic engineering techniques, researchers produce a population of fruit fly embryos, each of which is programmed to develop a replica of the patient's cancer.

Since a lot of genetically identical fly embryos can be created, and since they hatch from eggs within 30 hours and then mature within days, a plethora of novel combinations of treatments can be screened quickly on as many as 400,000 flies at once. Then, only the regimens that are effective are administered to the patient.

Biotech entrepreneur Laura Towart, CEO of the UK- and Ireland-based company, My Personal Therapeutics, is partnering with Mount Sinai to develop and test the fruit fly tactic. The researchers recently published a paper demonstrating that the tumor of the man with metastatic colorectal cancer had shrunk considerably following the treatment, and remained stable for 11 months, although he eventually succumbed to his illness.

Open Questions

Cancer is in fact many different diseases, even if it strikes two people in the same place, and both cancers look the same under a microscope. At the level of DNA, RNA, proteins, and other molecular factors, each cancer is unique – and may require a unique treatment approach.

Determining the true impact on cancer mortality will require clinical trials involving many more patients.

"Anatomy of a cancer still plays a major role, if you're a surgeon or radiation oncologist, but the medical approach to cancer therapy is moving toward treatments that are personalized based on other factors," notes Dr. Howard McLeod, an internationally recognized expert on cancer genetics at the Moffitt Cancer Center, in Tampa, Florida. "We are also headed into an era when even the methods for monitoring patients are individualized."

One big unresolved question about the fruit fly screening approach is how effective it will be in terms of actually extending life. Determining the true impact on cancer mortality will require clinical trials involving many more patients.

Next Up

Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, Towart is now working to build a service called TuMatch that will offer rapid and affordable personalized treatment recommendations for all genetically driven cancers. "We hope to have TuMatch available to patients with colorectal/GI cancers by January 2020," she says. "We are also offering [the fruit fly approach] for patients with rare genetic diseases and for patients who are diabetic."

Are Towart's fruit flies the answer to why the man's tumor shrunk? To be sure, the definitive answer will come from further research that is expected soon, but it's also clear that, prior to the treatment, there was nothing left to do for that particular patient. Thus, although it's early in the game, there's a pretty good rationale for optimism.

David Warmflash
David Warmflash is an astrobiologist and science writer. He received his M.D. from Tel Aviv University Sackler School of Medicine, and has done post doctoral work at Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the NASA Johnson Space Center, where he was part of the NASA's first cohort of astrobiology training fellows. He has written numerous articles covering a range of science topics, from the search for extraterrestrial life and space exploration to the origins of life, genetics, neuroscience, biotechnology, and the history of science. David’s articles have appeared in various publications, including Wired UK, Discover, Scientific American, Genetic Literacy Project, and Cricket Media. Throughout 2018, he did a blog post series on the emergence of ancient science for Vision Learning, covering thinkers from history. Many of these ancient pioneers of science also make an appearance in David's new book, "Moon: An Illustrated History: From Ancient Myths to the Colonies of Tomorrow."
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Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of public health at Brown University, discusses the latest developments around the Covid-19 vaccines, including supply and demand, herd immunity, kids, vaccine passports, and why he expects the summer to look very good.

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Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

The Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942 tragically claimed 490 lives, but was the catalyst for several important medical advances.

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On the evening of November 28, 1942, more than 1,000 revelers from the Boston College-Holy Cross football game jammed into the Cocoanut Grove, Boston's oldest nightclub. When a spark from faulty wiring accidently ignited an artificial palm tree, the packed nightspot, which was only designed to accommodate about 500 people, was quickly engulfed in flames. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of people were trapped inside, with most exit doors locked. Bodies piled up by the only open entrance, jamming the exits, and 490 people ultimately died in the worst fire in the country in forty years.

"People couldn't get out," says Dr. Kenneth Marshall, a retired plastic surgeon in Boston and president of the Cocoanut Grove Memorial Committee. "It was a tragedy of mammoth proportions."

Within a half an hour of the start of the blaze, the Red Cross mobilized more than five hundred volunteers in what one newspaper called a "Rehearsal for Possible Blitz." The mayor of Boston imposed martial law. More than 300 victims—many of whom subsequently died--were taken to Boston City Hospital in one hour, averaging one victim every eleven seconds, while Massachusetts General Hospital admitted 114 victims in two hours. In the hospitals, 220 victims clung precariously to life, in agonizing pain from massive burns, their bodies ravaged by infection.

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.