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(October 18, 2001, Gazette)

Meek fruit fly helps fight debilitating disease
Our flexible friends

(L-R) Annika Haywood, PhD student in biology; Tara Snelgrove, undergraduate NSERC scholar in biochemistry; Dr. Brian E. Staveley, assistant professor of biology; Angie Matthews, undergraduate NSERC scholar in biology; Jamie Kramer, PhD student in biology
Photo by Chris Hammond
Members of the Staveley lab in the fly room: (L-R) Annika Haywood, PhD student in biology; Tara Snelgrove, undergraduate NSERC scholar in biochemistry; Dr. Brian E. Staveley, assistant professor of biology; Angie Matthews, undergraduate NSERC scholar in biology; Jamie Kramer, PhD student in biology. Unavailable for photo: graduate students Hua-Xin Gao and Justin Moores.


It is said that the drop of an apple upon the head of Isaac Newton led to the formulation of the theory of universal gravitation. but who ever thought that the fruit fly perched on that apple might one day lead molecular biologists to a better understanding of human life?

The humble fruit fly might not command much respect from the layperson, but for contemporary molecular biologists, it is man’s new best friend.

Memorial’s Dr. Brian Staveley is one such biologist. He specializes in the molecular biology of cells, particularly the dynamics of cell death. This is currently among the most intense areas of study in molecular biology.

“Understanding how cells live and die, grow and multiply is essential to understanding a lot of medical conditions,” Dr. Staveley explained. He and his lab staff focus on some basic aspects of cell biology: cell reproduction, growth and death. “These are relatively basic cell behaviours and it means that these things are involved in all sorts of biology, including medical aspects.”

How these basic cell behaviours are initiated is a central problem. The processes that decide the fate of a cell at any particular moment have to do with the role of proteins.

“A lot of what we are doing in modern molecular biology is understanding how different proteins and protein machines interact. This is called ‘signal transduction.’ You have a signal caused by a hormone or something interacting with a cell’s membrane causing changes inside the cell which leads to one thing turning on one thing turning on another thing. You have a signal transduction cascade.”

Different types of signal transduction take place on different “pathways.” Dr. Staveley’s work concentrates on the insulin receptor pathway. “A series of one molecule telling another molecule to do something ends up in a change in gene expression or (in other words) in the cell’s state. I’m interested in whether the cell stays alive or if it dies, or if it grows or stops growing.”

Fruit flies, or drosophila, are convenient subjects for research into the basic operations of cells. Dr. Staveley explained that their short lives and relative cellular/molecular simplicity allow molecular biologists to test theories expeditiously. Such testing is useful because humans share many genetic similarities with fruit flies.

“A lot of the genes are the same, (particularly those) simply involved in normal cellular physiology. We can use this model, using drosophila, to investigate a lot of different diseases. Our general strategy is to look for genes that are similar to genes that cause a disease in humans.”

This helps solve a sticky problem in the genetic study of disease. “Quite often when we find out what the gene is, we really have no idea how to go from the gene to the disease. One way of doing this is to cause the same condition in fruit flies, and of course we can study it much faster in fruit flies and come up with something that may be very pertinent. That’s the general approach that my lab takes.”

The potential medical applications are many, and Dr. Staveley and his staff are looking at signal transduction in genes related to various diseases, including Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease destroys the neurons in the part of the brain responsible for controlling the movement of muscles.

“We’re interested in investigating this drosophila version of Parkinson’s disease. We expect that there is a cell-death component to it, because that is how Parkinson’s works — certain neurons die before they are supposed to. We have identified the drosophila version of the gene called Parkin, which is involved in Parkinson’s disease. We are currently trying to nail that one down.” Once this is done, Dr. Staveley believes solutions to preventing the death of neurons may become available.

“Whenever you really don’t have much of an idea why a mutation in a certain gene would lead to a certain disease, drosophila gives you an organism you can make these changes in,” Dr. Staveley said. “Even if you don’t know what the biochemical or even the molecular bases of the disease is, you can use the fruit fly to get clues to what’s going on.”

The meek fruit fly turns out to be a very flexible friend in the fight against debilitating disease.