How fruit flies may be key to the fight against cancer

 

"Do you feel like, because this is personalized, that you have a better shot at beating this?" asked Spencer.

Yes, they both responded. "There's no doubt in my mind," said Mark.

And they have found a very unconventional partner in their fight. Ross Cagan is not a cancer doctor -- he's a fruit fly geneticist. He and his team have started doing something that seems like science fiction: creating a genetic copy of a patient's tumor in a fruit fly (apparently a very intricate little critter).

Using the flies, they then test thousands of drug combinations until they find a cocktail that works. 

"This has been called 'revolutionary' -- what's revolutionary about it?" asked Spencer.

"What's different is, we're obsessing over how to make the model," said Cagan. "We make the model as close to Mark as we can, and then we don't have any bias on what drug we throw on it. We take a large set of FDA-approved drugs -- they're not even all cancer drugs -- and we throw them all at the fly. We don't really care what's driving the tumor; we just care what stops it."

He showed Spencer a "tumor fly," with cancer-causing genes directed in the eye. That fly is "The Mark Fly," named after Mark Beeninga. And it not only replicates Mark's tumor but other issues as well, including Beeninga's diabetes.

"So you have produced a diabetic fruit fly with Mark's tumor?" Spencer said. "A fruit fly is the size of a period at the end of the sentence, if that. How is this possible?"

"We have very powerful microscopes," he laughed.

Mark Beeninga inspired Ross Cagan and his team to open up the Center for Personalized Cancer Therapeuticsat Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Spencer asked, "What is it like for you, personally, to have gone from pretty much strictly lab stuff to dealing with a person like this?"

"Mark really forced me out of my comfort zone," Cagan said, "so it has changed my career." And he said, it's not an overstatement that it has changed his life.

Along the way, patient and scientist also have become fast friends. Patient and fly are still getting acquainted. "He's moving his legs," Mark said, peering through the microscope. "He's waving to me! Incredible."

Cagan's pioneering research already has led to a three-drug cocktail that knocked the cancer out in the Mark Fly. Next question: will it do the same in Mark? We were with him for his first round of treatment.

Cagan said this is his best hope. "Mark has become resistant to all standard care," he said. "I'm not aware of another option that Mark has."

A few weeks along, and the new drug cocktail is showing early signs of promise -- and at age 57, thirteen years after his diagnosis, Mark Beeninga says he's still got a lot of fight left.

Spencer said, "You have to feel like what you've done is bound to help other people. It's bound to. How does that make you feel?"

"Oh, I hope they cure cancer, you know, tomorrow," said Beeninga. "I mean, I hope this process is so devastating to cancer that, you know, Ross is gonna have people knockin' on his door saying, 'Well, you know, we'd like to get this done too. How do we do it?' And, you know, training people and stuff like that. 

"So that would be great. That would be great. I hope that happens. The quicker, the better."


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