Tools and technology:
By Brona McVittie
Finding drug targets for cancer is not a simple matter. As Maria Dominguez (Institute for Neurosciences, Alicante, Spain) points out, “Cancer is extremely complex. It is not one disease, but many different manifestations of a similar problem. Studies in animals like flies may shed light on the molecular basis of human cancers.” Many human cancer-risk genes were first identified in flies.
Once cancer-risk genes have been found, drug candidates can be tested. Drugs normally take the form of molecules that are small enough to traverse the cell membrane and interact with specific proteins by hampering or enhancing their function. Since signaling networks are implicated in cancer biology, the search for small-molecules that can influence protein components of such pathways is a valid pursuit.
In a similar fashion to the high-throughput techniques outlined (see Simultaneous snapshots) the effects of drug candidates on proteins can be assessed using microarray technology. Recent advances in laboratory automation coupled with the ability to assemble and manage large libraries of drug candidates, mean that scientists can now screen hundreds of thousands of small molecules to see if they will affect target proteins.
Once compounds that bind to proteins made by cancer-risk genes have been found, they need to be tested to see how they bind proteins inside cells and then in live animals. Flies not only provide a useful tool in the hunt for genes, but a suitable model for screening the effects of drug candidates on entire signaling networks within the context of cells in vivo.