Research on Flies Could Unlock Aging Mysteries

Courtesy WHSV/TV3.

Research being conducted at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg could begin to shed some light on the mysteries of aging.

Assistant professor of biology Jeff Copeland is doing aging research using an unlikely subject- fruit flies.

The concept of studying human aging by using fruit flies is one his student research assistant Charise Garber, a senior from Lancaster, Pennsylvania found a bit strange when she first signed on to the project.

“It was really weird when I first thought about it that way. You don’t really think about discoveries in flies having very much to do with human life span or anything else,” Garber said.

However, Copeland says the flies are at the very center of unlocking the mysteries of aging.

“A lot of our understanding of various diseases, we have some kind of framework but with aging we have no idea of how it works really,” Copeland explained. “We kind of have some ideas of why it happens but we don’t really have any genes behind it or why it happens or why some people can live long healthy lives.”

With the flies, Copeland can run experiments that would be impossible to do on humans.

“We can’t obviously do a lot of human studies so we use these flies to kind of learn from them and then apply to humans,” Copeland commented. “They’re kind of the testing ground for aging research, it can then be applied and it’s kind of what we’ve seen work for these small organism, has also worked for larger organism.”

However, the average life span of a fruit fly in the lab is just about 45 days. So how can research into a creature so small, with such a short life span, tell scientists anything about human aging? The answer to that relies heavily on what has worked in the past.

“Anything we know about aging has come from smaller organisms, from nematodes, from fruit flies and then has been applied to mice and into chimpanzees,” Copeland said.

Successful research that is done on the flies in Harrisonburg is then tried on larger organisms in labs around the world.

“So if it works for a fly and a worm, and it also works for a mouse, it will certainly work for a human,” Copeland said.

If it works in a human, then it could have dramatic consequences on how age-related diseases are treated.

Copeland says “A lot of what we know about medically related diseases – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Cancer – all of them have a primary factor of age. Typically you don’t hear of young people getting these diseases.”

One especially tough disease that has an age related component is Alzheimer’s.

“A lot of people with Alzheimer’s have an age related disease, a lot of their metabolism goes down and if we can figure out how the metabolism has gone wrong in an Alzheimer’s patient, maybe we can boost their metabolism, boost that age related aspect and then find a way to recover that aspect and maybe find a treatment,” Dr. Copeland said.

The research team has already found some success in changing the metabolism of flies.

One experiment Garber ran seemed odd at first: giving a small dose of poison to the flies, but believe it or not, the flies lived longer.

“I was kind of like, well that seems strange, you know it’s kind of a strange concept that you can feed flies poison and expect them to live longer, you know it’s just not something you expect,” Garber said.

While it may be years before anything learned from the fly lab changes how we live, it’s already starting to take hold.

“When you take a step back and you look at the lifespans, you look at the accumulated data, you can say hey I actually have a story here, I see that I can actually extend the life of flies, 40%, 50, that’s something significant,” Copeland said.

Some of the research has already been applied to mice by a French scientist and Garber plans to use her experiences in the lab when she applies to medical school later this semester.