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."
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.

"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.

Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.


Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!