FSU researchers look to fruit flies in fight against childhood cancer

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By: Erin Lisch
April 13, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- Stacking a tower in his playroom, Grayson Irwin seems like your typical 5-year-old, but it wasn't always this way.

His mother, Janelle Grayson, says early on he was fighting for his life, "When Grayson was 11 months old, he was diagnosed with Infant T-Cell Leukemia, long story short, he had blood cancer."

Irwin says at the time, specialists gave her son a 1 in 10 chance of beating the disease.

Grayson isn't alone-- doctors diagnose more than 15,000 kids a year with cancer.

Some treatments are more challenging than others.

"You hear too often about children passing away from cancer. It's a true reality of the world we live in. Knowing that there's people doing something about it is indescribable for a family who's been there and done that," said Irwin.

Some of that research happening at a biology laboratory on Florida State University's campus.

FSU Professor Wu-Min Deng, postdoctoral researcher Gengqiang Xie and his team are looking to nature to inspire a new cure.

FSU Professor Wu-Min Deng said, "75 percent of disease genes are found in flies."

Specifically, fruit flies. Most consider these bugs a nuisance, but at the genetic level, they might just be a lifesaver.

"The mutation of that gene has been linked to an early childhood tumor," said Deng.

This team is now focusing on a complex protein called Snr1.

Because of it, fruit flies don't grow tumors when scientists remove it from their genetic make-up.

The exact opposite happens, tumors grow.

"The more we know the better we understand how those tumor cells grow then we may be able to design better therapies against it," said Deng.

Researchers are now using their findings to help target malignant rhabdoid tumors. This is a rare early childhood cancer found in the kidneys and brain.

"I have a new appreciation for fruit flies-- they're so annoying, but oh my goodness, I love that we're getting some cancer research," said Irwin.

Although Grayson's cancer was different, his cure was also experimental.

"I'm happy to report that we're 21 months cancer-free and celebrating every day," said Irwin.

And for other families, new research, like the kind in FSU’s lab, leads to new hope.

"It means another child that might be able to go to kindergarten, [a] child that might be able to scoot off to college one day and get married and have a life that moves forward," said Irwin.

The smallest creatures, helping make that possible.

Researchers say there's more work to be done, this alone is five years of work. The next step is developing a treatment.

Irwin heads up a Tallahassee based parent-support group called the Hang Tough Foundation. It connects families with resources, and support, as they maneuver a cancer diagnosis.