So, what can a growing fly teach us about skin cancer?

Back in April we welcomed launch of the Golden Goose Awards , an annual prize awarded to honor federally funded research  “whose work may once have been viewed as unusual, odd, or obscure, but has produced important discoveries benefiting society in significant ways.”.

The Golden Goose award was developed in response to attacks on basic research by politicians who fail to appreciate the value of basic research, and it is not difficult to imagine that a research project begun back in the 1980’s which sought to determine the role of a gene named “hedgehog” during embryonic development in fruit flies would have been greeted with derision by the usual suspects .

D. melanogaster, an organism whose small size belies its huge contribution to medical science. Image courtesy of André Karwath.

Any such derision would have been badly misplaced. An article posted last week on the Cancer Research UK Science Update blog reveals how studying the hedgehog gene in the fly Drosophila melanogaster ultimately led to the development ofVismodegib, a drug recently approved for the treatment of advanced basal-cell carcinoma by the FDA, noting that:

 For us, the hedgehog’s tale is a testament to the beauty and potential of basic biology. It’s certainly not the first time that our basic research has helped set the stage for a new drug that can help cancer patients, and – given the progress we’re continuing to make in our research centres across the country – we doubt it will be the last.”

I encourage you to read the full CRUK Science Update Blog post “High-impact science: Hedgehogs, flies and skin cancer – the story of vismodegib” , it’s an excellent example of how research on flies, rodents and a range of other organisms combined with studies of cancer genetics in humans to enabled the development of an innovative therapy.

Paul Browne

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