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Fruit flies play a big role in University of Arizona team’s research

Zeroing in on the causes of ALS
Updated: May. 12, 2021 at 6:55 AM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A University of Arizona team is working to better understand ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, by studying something many of us find annoying at times — fruit flies.

UA researchers believe these tiny insects could be beneficial to millions of people because their neurological systems are surprisingly similar to humans.

In fact, around 75% of the genes linked to human diseases are closely related to the genes in a common fruit fly.

Right now, the team is looking at degenerating neurons to see if they can better understand what goes wrong before symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease even show up.

“We’re not just doing this work for the sake of identifying interesting things in fruit flies. We are, but we’re also very motivated to have relevance to human disease,” Dr. Daniela Zarnescu, UA molecular and cellular biology professor, said.

Credit: Michele Vaughan, U of A Zarnescu lab
Credit: Michele Vaughan, U of A Zarnescu lab(Michele Vaughan)

Lou Gehrig’s disease is a progressive disease marked by the deterioration and death of nerve cells used for voluntary movements such as walking, talking, eating and so much more. It is incurable.

Researchers anticipate these fruit flies will tell them something important about the disease and how to possibly treat it in the future.

So far, they’ve found the protein called TDP-43, which disrupts the creation of healthy protein and causes cells to die in people with ALS, also stops the production of healthy Dlp cells in fruit flies. Dlp, short for Dally-like protein – is critical to the function of healthy neurons.

They’ve also discovered that when they restore the Dlp protein in the fruit flies, the insects’ ability to move returns.

The next step is to see if the same thing can happen in people with ALS.

“We hope to be able to continue to not only understand the pathways that go wrong in these degenerating neurons but maybe taking this information and figuring out ways to stop the progression of the disease and improve the lives of patients,” Zarnescu said.

She added that understanding this could also help researchers eventually understand other neurodegenerative diseases as well, including frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Something else really interesting about this research — it all started thanks to a donation from a foundation started by the family of Jim Himelic, a Pima County Juvenile Court judge who died of ALS in 2000.

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