Researchers have identified a genetic switch in growing fruit flies that might help explain the proliferation and spread of cancer cells in humans.

A team led by Carl S. Thummel, PhD, a human-genetics professor at University of Utah Health Services in Salt Lake City, found the genetic switch, which supports cell division and proliferation in the day-old embryo flies. The switch is controlled by a nuclear receptor and transcription factor that is similar to three human transcription factors known as estrogen-related receptors (ERRs). Because two of the ERR transcription factors are associated with breast cancer, understanding the role of the fruit-fly version of these proteins (dERR) could help clarify how cancer cells proliferate and spread in people.

In the fruit-fly embryos, cells divide freely as the insect undergoes dramatic growth in a process that depends on a metabolic state similar to that seen when cells form cancerous tumors. In the fruit flies and other organisms, however, the cells stop proliferating once the animal becomes mature.

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Dr. Thummel’s team silenced dERR in the embryos at the stage when the cells start to divide furiously. This resulted in metabolic disruption, halted growth, and death for the insects.

In their report, published online by Cell Metabolism, the investigators stated that their study provides a molecular context to understand the close association between mammalian ERR family members and cancer.