Talk to Focus on Cancer, Aging – and Fruit Flies

February 11, 2009

Dirk Bohmann, Ph.D.

Dirk Bohmann, Ph.D., asks the biggest of questions using a tiny organism.

Bohmann, professor of genetics in the Department of Biomedical Genetics, will speak about his exploits mining fruit flies for information about cancer, aging and metabolism as part of a lecture series highlighting biological and biomedical research at the University of Rochester.

Bohmann will speak at 4 p.m. Friday, Feb. 13, in the Case Methods Room (Room 1-9675) at the Medical Center. It’s the latest installment of the “Second Friday Science Social” lecture series geared mainly to faculty, staff and students at the University, though the general public is welcome as well.

Bohmann began his career looking at the extensive cell signaling that underlies cancer in people. But he switched to fruit flies because they’re simpler and easier to study, yet much of the exact same signaling takes place. The hope is that studies in fruit flies will result in faster answers to complex questions about human cancer.

“We explore the same questions in fruit flies that we would in people, only much more quickly and at much less expense,” said Bohmann. “People are tremendously complex. In fruit flies, we ask the same questions, but with fewer other issues cluttering the landscape. It’s largely because of the fruit fly that we know as much as we do about cancer.”

Bohmann’s forays with fruit flies have led him to explore the links between aging, cancer, diabetes, and how our bodies fight off the molecular insults that we all encounter as we age. It turns out that many of the ways we protect ourselves against various molecular insults, such as the oxidative damage that is a natural part of aging, are central to either the prevention or the development of cancer.

In one project, his team created an extraordinarily long-lived fruit fly. But it’s not the mutant fly itself that constitutes any type of research breakthrough. Rather, the fly serves as a portal for understanding the factors that determine how nutrition and stress set the foundation for metabolic syndrome and diabetes, why diabetes occurs more frequently as people age, and indeed why people live as long as they do. The same signaling pathways are also involved in a variety of cancers.

In related work, last year he showed that an important signaling system that helps people fight oxidative damage also works similarly in fruit flies, opening the door to faster, less expensive ways to find compounds that spur our natural anti-oxidant activity. Increasing the activity of the system could boost a person’s ability to fight off cancer. Ironically, the same system sometimes allows cancer cells to fight off drugs intended to kill them, so knowing how to control the signals could give scientists an added tool for knocking out cancers that are resistant to treatment.

Bohmann received his Ph.D. in biology from the University of Tübingen in 1986 and was senior scientist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg before joining the University in 2001. He is director of the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology and is also a professor in the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center.

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