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Fruit Fly Research Possible Key to Understanding Alzheimer’s and Degenerative Diseases

By Colby Gallagher

Published on July 16, 2019

What if someone told you fruit flies could be the answer to understanding and treating neurodegenerative diseases? Thanks to a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, Maggie Pearce PhD, assistant professor of biology and neuroscience, is leading a new study to find new information about these diseases using the tiny insects.

“One huge advantage of using fruit flies is we get to study these questions in vivo, or in a living organism,” said Dr. Pearce. “The fruit fly research community has generated numerous genetic tools that we can use to investigate these types of questions in the brain.”

Dr. Pearce and her team use carbon dioxide to put the fruit flies to sleep to sort them for mating. They then mate the insects to express genes that are associated with neurodegeneration.

At first, the flies were used to study Huntington’s Disease, a progressive brain disorder that causes the breakdown of nerve cells in the brain, but the laboratory recently received the NIH grant to continue the study with a focus on Alzheimer’s. The proposal, titled “Drosophila models for tau toxicity and spreading in the central nervous system,” helped Dr. Pearce’s team to secure $285,000 to focus on the research.

Kirby Donnelly PhD'21 (Cell and Molecular Biology)“I was immediately drawn toward Dr. Pearce’s lab because neurodegenerative diseases are such a big field right now,” said Kirby Donnelly PhD’21 (Cell and Molecular Biology). “Everyone’s worried about it because of the aging population we have in the United States and in the world.”

Donnelly is one of two graduate and six undergraduate students working in Dr. Pearce’s lab.

Once the diseased gene is incorporated into the fruit fly, she and the team can study the spreading of the protein that’s generated by the mutant gene. The data they collect can then be used to develop solutions for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“Even though we’re looking at something very small such as a fruit fly, the things that we learn are actually going to help us find better results and better treatments for ultimately humans,” said Donnelly.

Dr. Pearce said under the new study, they’ll investigate some of the same questions they asked in Huntington’s Disease flies, but now in an Alzheimer’s model to hopefully make some progress in the fight against this more prevalent disease.

Dr. Pearce separates fruit flies for mating in a new study“The goal is to publish our findings and to use the data that we obtain to apply for larger NIH or other grants. We hope that our research will ultimately help patients who suffer from these devastating disorders.”

Third and fourth-year students interested in this type of research can apply for Dr. Pearce’s CURE or Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience course, “Genes and Brains,” which is being offered in Fall 2018.

The study is funded through March of 2020.

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