Scientists at the University of Adelaide are infecting fruit flies with Alzheimer’s in an effort to find an effective answer to the thus far incurable neuro degenerative disease that afflicts thousands of elderly people around the world every year. The scientists are working on the premise that the tiny vinegar fly or Drosophila Melanogaster could indeed help them move towards finding a treatment for the dreadful malady.
Led by molecular pharmacologist and toxicologist, Dr Ian Musgrave, the scientists aim to try out treatment methods including drugs for Alzheimer’s on these insects, which are widely used at labs around the world for genetic research.
The incidence of Alzheimer’s increases exponentially, as people get older, a grim signal for nations like India where longevity is increasing in consort with improving health services and standards of life.
The thrust of Dr Musgrave and his team currently is to try out a cocktail of natural products on vinegar fly populations to see if they help in preventing the toxic protein that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s from mis-folding and thereby inflicting damage.
Vinegar fruit flies are a good choice for these trials as it is faster and simpler to notice the effect of numerous treatment approaches on them. There is of course another way: you can administer drugs on humans for 30 years to see if they are successful in preventing the disease. Obviously this is an unacceptably slow way of doing it.
Of course, genetically constructed mice are already being used around the world in medical including Alzheimer’s research because other than humans and dogs no other animal is really susceptible to primate diseases. “However, we have chosen vinegar flies because we have well founded models of their memory and behaviour. Also, fruit flies are very well established models of genetic modification,” says Dr Musgrave. “These factors will enable us to study with great accuracy the effect of the disease and its possible treatments on their nervous system.
Since the flies have a very short generation span, it becomes possible to study the impact of a huge numbers of compounds in very quick time. “Answers can be expected within half a year, which is half of what it would take if we were to take the mouse route,” adds Dr Musgrave. However, “before we can start testing how various methods of treatment work, we need to first give the disease to the insects. And we have done this by taking the gene that makes the protein responsible for the disease in humans and implanted them in place of an equivalent gene from in the flies,” says the doctor.