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University of Iowa News Release


Oct. 30, 2008

UI biologist studies fruit fly genes to better understand cancer, other diseases

A University of Iowa biologist is studying the genes of fruit flies in an effort to better understand the genes involved in the development of cancer and other diseases in humans.

John Manak, assistant professor of biology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and researcher in the Roy J. Carver Center for Comparative Genomics, published his research in the Sept. 4 online edition of the journal Public Library of Science-Genetics. He and his collaborators found that a class of DNA bound proteins normally thought to be involved in the repression of genes is also bound to active genes.

By looking at the whole organism as well as in a particular tissue, they were able to hone in on specific functions of these proteins. Since members of this class of proteins have been shown to produce cancers when altered, these data show that linkages between the genes of drosophila (fruit fly) and humans are gradually becoming clearer, bringing scientists closer to the goal of one day understanding the genetic causes of various cancers and other diseases in man.

"I use the drosophila homologues of human genes to help understand how the human genes function," Manak said. "I tease out how the products of these genes function normally. Then I try to understand how the processes they are involved in go awry when the genes are mutated.

"My lab uses a methodology I developed in fruit flies to map mutations to the genes they affect in humans. I am using this strategy to try to identify hard-to-find mutations in a variety of human diseases and disorders," he said.

Manak noted that at least 60 percent of the genes involved in human disease and cancer are conserved in flies. The genes he is studying encode proteins that bind to DNA or chromatin in the cell nucleus. He and his colleagues hope to determine where and how these proteins bind across the entire fly genome, and how these proteins act to assemble the basic building blocks of chromatin.

He said that because several of these proteins are homologous to both tumor suppressor and tumor promoting proteins in humans, the ultimate goal will be to determine not only how these proteins function in the context of normal cell growth, but also how the loss or alteration of these proteins can lead to cancer.

His co-authors include: Camilla Kwong, Lisa Meadows, Steven Russell and Rob White of the University of Cambridge; Ian Bell of Affymetrix Inc.; and researcher Boris Adryan.

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