How Scientists Are Using Fruit Flies to Find Alternative Cancer Treatments

fruit fly

“His name was Ross Cagan. He did not work for Schadt; he worked as a professor at Sinai. But they met every week, and after Schadt called on October 1 to tell Cagan about Stephanie Lee, he listened to Cagan’s idea for her. A month earlier, Cagan had started doing something that he said ‘had never been done before.’ He started creating ‘personalized flies’ for cancer patients. He took the mutations that scientists like Schadt had revealed and loaded them into flies, essentially giving the flies the same cancer that the patient had. Then he treated them. ‘Why a fly? You can do this in a fly. You can capture the complexities of the tumor.’

“A day after Cagan spoke with Schadt, Stephanie became the fifth person in the world to have a fly built in her image—or, rather, in the image of her cancer. In an ideal world, Cagan would have created as complex a creature as possible, burdening the fly with at least ten mutations. He gave Stephanie’s fly three, because ‘Stephanie is on the shorter course. We’re making the fly as complex as possible given her time.’ By October 11, however, Cagan already had ‘one possible drug suggestion for her’—or one possible combination of drugs, since he always tests at least two at a time. ‘In this center, the FDA will not allow us to put a novel drug in patient. To get a novel drug into a patient, we have to do a novel combination of [known] drugs. We have to use novel drug combinations that people have never seen before'”

- In Esquire, Mark Warren and Tom Junod tell the story of an Iraq War widow named Stephanie Lee who was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, and how scientists at Mount Sinai are using her genetic data to find personalized treatments for her. Read more stories about fighting cancer.

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Photo: John Tann

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Mike is the managing editor at Longreads, on the editorial team at WordPress.com, and is the editor of The Billfold. He has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, Pacific Standard, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.
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