Complex Made Simple

How whales, dogs, and fruit flies are helping scientists fight, even cure cancer

Scientists trying to find a cure for cancer are thinking out of the box, looking at certain animals and insects to figure out novel ways to fight or cure cancer

Future researchers can create tumor-suppressing genes found in whales in smaller beings such as humans Trained dogs correctly identified positive prostate cancer samples 71% of the time The mechanisms that control cellular repair are the same in humans and fruit flies

Scientists trying to find a cure for cancer are thinking out of the box, in a refreshing way. 

In the case of whales, it’s about understanding their longevity and how they are so resistant to cancer in the harsh environments they are in.

For dogs, it’s about mimicking the canines’ strong ability to sniff cancer in humans.

And fruit flies are so much like us. Curing them means curing us.

A whale of an experience  

Whales experience lower rates of cancer than many animals including humans. 

In a new study, researchers have sought to understand why this is happening.

They speculated that since whales live for so long, they are exposed to numerous pathogens. They thus evolve genes enhanced to protect against these diseases such as DNA repair mechanisms and other biological processes.

What scientists found were 71 tumor suppressor genes that were duplicated in the whales studied. They also discovered CXCR2, a gene believed to regulate immune function, the spread of tumors, and DNA damage.

The discovery is significant because now future researchers can use the findings to create tumor-suppressing genes in smaller beings such as humans. The researchers are already looking into this type of study.

“It would be interesting to investigate in human cells the effect of those conserved TSGs variants identified in whales. Such an avenue of investigation could eventually lead to an understanding of novel pathways that serve to improve the cellular mechanisms protecting against DNA damage, cancer, and aging,” wrote the scientists.

Read: Hack a tumour: Scientists are fooling cancer cells, just like hackers do!

Read: Ten research initiatives from and for the UAE

Cancer-sniffing dog-like AI robotic noses 

Trained dogs can detect some of the world’s most serious forms of cancers and other diseases just by using their noses. Now, a team of researchers is using this method to create a “robotic nose” that mimics this process to more rapidly detect diseases in the future.

The study comprises researchers from MIT and other institutions, as well as the U.K.-based charity Medical Detection Dogs.  

Medical Detection Dogs‘ canines are able to sniff out some of the most aggressive forms of cancer thanks to their training. This training, however, takes time, hence the researchers’ desire to create a faster process using devices and AI. 

Results from the study showed that these trained dogs correctly identified positive prostate cancer samples 71% of the time, and correctly ignored negative samples, including people with other prostate diseases.

The “robotic nose” mimics this sniffing ability to detect such diseases thanks to an electronic device, which could one day come in the form of an app. 

Dr. Andreas Mershin, co-author of the study and from MIT, said “Imagine a day when smartphones can send an alert for potentially being at risk for highly aggressive prostate cancer, years before a doctor notices a rise in PSA levels.”

Mershin explains that their detector system is, in fact, 200 times more sensitive than a trained dog’s nose in terms of being able to detect and identify small traces of different molecules. However, it’s also “dumber” as Mershin said, which is where the AI comes into play.

The researchers state that they now have a solid framework from which to continue working and developing so as to bring the technology up to the level for clinical use. 

Fruit flies repair cells the way humans do

Drosophila melanogaster, tiny fruit flies, are actually sophisticated models of human biology. Some 60% of Drosophila protein-encoding genes have a parallel in humans. Drosophila can become obese, can develop diabetes or Parkinson’s disease, and, with some tricks of genetic engineering, can be induced to develop tumors identical to those in humans.

The mechanisms that control cellular repair are the same in humans and flies. 

“If you find a drug that is going to affect a cancer-inducing oncogene in flies, there’s a good chance that will have an effect in humans,” says Norbert Perrimon, a developmental biologist and geneticist at Harvard Medical School who developed several of the techniques used in genetic research on flies.

That is the premise of a London startup called Vivan Therapeutics which is harnessing a century of fruit fly genetic research along with modern genomic sequencing to create the cancer-fighting “Personal Discovery Process”.

By giving hundreds of thousands of fruit flies the same cancer mutations as in a human patient, they can run thousands of drug screens in parallel, testing to see which are the most effective and in what combinations are best for combatting that particular tumor. This truly personalized medicine incorporates both common cancer drugs and those not normally used in cancer treatment.

Vivan Therapeutics is focusing on gastrointestinal, head, and neck cancers and rare cancers for which there is no established treatment. 

Ultimately, the company plans to develop a database of gene mutations and previously tested drug combos, enabling patients to receive suggestions for a regimen more swiftly. 

“For colorectal cancer, we already know that there are about five drug combinations that work for about 75% of the population,” says CEO and founder Laura Towart. 

This could be the beginning of a new horizon in cancer care, a move beyond the current targeted therapy based on a single biomarker or commonly found mutation. 

The fly-based process seeks agents against the combined, interactive effects of as many as 20 mutations in a single tumor. But it’s still the effort of last resort for terminally ill patients.