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FRUITFUL RESEARCH: (From left) Daniel Long, a Slippery Rock University biology and biochemistry major from Birdsboro, prepares a liquid substance Tuesday for feeding fruit flies. Long and Isaac Fisher and Joshua Hutton, biology majors from Harmony and Cresson, are researching fruit flies for possible connections to understanding human dementia.

Fruit fly research may shed light
on human neurodegeneration

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Those small fruit flies that you swat away from bananas are more than a nuisance - they are allies in the search for clues to slowing human neurological disease.

Slippery Rock University students are researching the effects of four chemical compounds on the behavior of fruit flies with a disease causing mutation called "sugarkill." They are collaborating with Stacy Hrizo, assistant professor of biology. Their goal is to learn more about what causes brain cells to die in the flies with the disease causing mutation and to identify compounds that could slow or alter the progression of neurodegeneration.

"Fruit flies, just like humans, have neurodegenerative disease and brain death, like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington disease," Hrizo said. "Just like in human patients, when brain tissue starts dying, fruit fly behavior and memory capacity changes. We are observing that."

Daniel Long, a biology and biochemistry major from Birdsboro, and Isaac Fisher and Joshua Hutton, biology majors from Harmony and Cresson, are breeding fruit flies in test tubes. They feed them and are studying their reaction to hydrogen peroxide and the oxidative stressors diamide, dithiothereitol and beta-mercaptoethanol by placing it in their food. They are researching whether flies with the mutation live longer or shorter lives and how their behavior changes when they are exposed to the compounds.

"This is an initial screen to see if any of these compounds are having an effect, and then you can always look for better drugs that may be being used in humans that have better effects," Hrizo said.

Fisher said he has been focusing on treating flies with beta-mercaptoethanol, a reducing agent that adds electrons to molecules in cells.

"During treatment, I put the flies through a series of behavioral tests and measure protein levels in the cells," Fisher said. "The purpose of my research is to figure out if a specific mutation of the enzyme will act differently under reductive stress. This causes a lot of problems with flies - and humans - including brain death. The mutation is very similar to one found in humans, which is why it is such an interesting topic to research."

Fisher said he treated two types of flies, those with no mutations and those with a sugarkill mutation. "I did this by simply putting the compound in the food for the flies," he said.

Fruit flies with the disease causing mutation begin to show neurodegenration after 24 days of life. "We are also looking for improvements upon exposure to the compounds," Hrizo said. They live up to four months.