Health Watch -- Suppressing Tumors

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Scientists continue to learn more about the genetic basis of cancer.

There may not seem to be too many similarities between a fruit fly and a human being, but on the genetic level, we're very much alike. Fruit flies have about 70 percent of the same disease-causing genes that humans have. That's why scientists often study the genetics of fruit flies. A fruit fly's genes mutate easily, and the fly's short lifespan makes it possible for scientists to study several generations.

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas have now found a gene in fruit flies that appears to make a big difference in whether or not cancer occurs. This gene suppresses tumors by both regulating the degree to which cells grow and by ensuring that cells die when they're supposed to. Without this gene, fruit flies develop tumors in nearly every organ.

There's a protein in humans that scientists think plays a similar role. When UT Southwestern researchers replaced the fruit-fly tumor suppression gene with this protein, the fruit flies developed fewer tumors than they did without the tumor suppression gene. That leads scientists to believe that the protein in humans does help regulate and suppress tumor growth. This protein may not be working properly in humans who develop tumors.

Researchers plan to continue studying tumor suppression mechanisms in humans and in fruit flies. One day, they may find a way to use drugs or gene therapy to make tumor suppression work properly.