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Seeking Alzheimer's Answers Among Fruit Flies
Date:2/25/2011

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Feb. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Medical research often involves a great deal of creativity, finding unique ways to solve challenging problems. But scientists can face skepticism when using creative methods to research human diseases, particularly when those methods involve animals or insects.

Take, for example, the work of one research team, which is studying fruit flies to help determine the genetic causes of Alzheimer's disease.

So how can a person tell if a fruit fly is suffering from memory loss? And how would that help advance the fight against Alzheimer's?

A key expert on fruit flies, which are also called drosophila, said the connection is a fairly simple one: Humans are not that much different genetically from other animals or even insects.

"Anything you can imagine that's alive can be used to study human health and disease," said Laurie Tompkins, chief of the Genetic Mechanisms Branch in the Division of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the U.S. National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Md.

Tompkins, who has studied fruit flies for more than a decade, noted that animals, insects, plants and even microorganisms have certain genetic and systemic similarities to humans that can be exploited by researchers to better understand human illness. "People have a hard time comprehending that a lot of the processes that go on in these organisms are similar to those in humans," she said.

For example, flies share about two-thirds of the same disease genes found in humans, Tompkins said.

"But to look at a fly, how would you know?" she added. "They look different. They behave differently. How can you tell that what's going on inside is the same?"

As it turns out, one of those genes that exist in both fruit flies and humans has been linked to the hereditary form of Alzheimer's disease, which is particularly aggressive
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