UO doctoral student finds age-related changes in fruit fly stem cells

A proliferating mass of cells fills a Drosophila larval brain in absence of the protein Eyeless

In the lab of UO scientist Chris Doe, the focus is on how the central nervous system develops in fruit flies, whose often-studied biology provides a simplified window to explore cell interactions that could prove important in human medicine.

Based on his previous research, Doe wondered if key signaling among molecules changes as stem cells age. He challenged his doctoral student Dylan Farnsworth to find out.

In a newly published paper in the journal Current Biology, Farnsworth reports his discovery that age-related changes indeed occur, and that a protein associated with adult T-cell leukemia in humans is involved. Eventually after the research advances, Doe said, the discovery could inform new therapeutic treatments that could be precisely timed.

The changes occur late in the larval stage of a fruit fly's life, when the brain is being formed. Along the way, stem cell activity depends on a fine balance of interaction involving various proteins. Too much of one, called Notch, leads to tumor formation; too little and neurons are not made. Late in the game, Notch signaling stops with the emergence of the protein that has a key human counterpart.

"If we can identify the stem cells that are relied upon during development, maybe we could find a way to use them later to re-create conditions that might be therapeutic," Farnsworth said. "If you do it incorrectly, you risk over-proliferation and the development of masses — and cancer."

For more information, read the news release that focuses on the science.