Fruit flies are allowing researchers to gain new insights into cachexia, a muscle-wasting condition responsible for up to one-third of cancer-related deaths.

Affecting up to 80 per cent of patients with advanced-stage cancers, cachexia is a condition where tumours cause muscles and body fat to waste away.

This loss of muscle and fat makes patients more prone to falls and less able to tolerate chemotherapy. There are currently no treatments for cachexia and due to the lack of good models to study this disease, our understanding of it is poor.

But new research led by Peter Mac's Associate Professor Louise Cheng, and published overnight in the journal Developmental Cell, is beginning to change that.

Using a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) model of cancer cachexia, A/Prof Cheng and her team discovered that tumours secrete an enzyme called Mmp1 which is responsible for breaking down fat and muscle.

“Fruit flies share 70% of human disease genes. For the first time, we were able to image the whole process of cachexia in an animal, allowing us to gain an understanding of the sequence of events that leads to tumour induced muscle wasting," she says.

"Using powerful genetic tools in flies, we were able to discover a mediator of this process that helps us better understand how tumours communicate with muscle and fat."

By digging through The Cancer Genome Atlas, the researchers found that high levels of Mmp enzymes are also correlated with cachexia in humans.

"It is therefore likely we have found a mediator relevant in human cachexia," A/Prof Cheng says.

She hopes the study will lead to the development of new tools to diagnose cachexia earlier, and the identification of therapeutics that might be able to treat it.

"One strategy is to prevent tumours from releasing this enzyme," A/Prof Cheng says.

"At the same time, understanding what causes muscle and fat breakdown will help us discover ways to save these tissues even in the presence of tumours."

The study was a collaboration between Peter Mac, WEHI, the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University.

For more information contact the Peter Mac Communications team on 0417 123 048.

About Peter Mac
Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre is a world-leading cancer research, education and treatment centre and Australia’s only public health service solely dedicated to caring for people affected by cancer.