For more than a century, researchers have relied on Drosophila, the common fruit fly, to help them answer questions about human health.
Why use a fruit fly? For OMRF scientist Hui-Ying Lim, Ph.D., the answer is simple: Flies are small and easy to maintain, and about 75 percent of their genes mirror those in humans. They also have a very simple heart structure that makes them easier to study than higher-order animals.
This month, Lim was awarded a five-year, $2.14 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to pursue a promising discovery using fruit flies as a model for cardiovascular disease research. This innovative model could allow researchers to delve into a little-studied cellular process crucial to the development of healthy, functional hearts.
Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the industrialized world and is responsible for one out of every four deaths in the U.S. Despite the importance of understanding the origins of these diseases at the cellular level, researchers still have little knowledge of some of the critical processes involved because of their inability to establish an effective model of the disease.
Lim’s project focuses on a process called inter-cell signaling. “We’re looking at the interaction between muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, and non-muscle cells in the heart of a fruit fly,” said Lim. “Specifically we’re looking at the role of free radicals, which are created when cells use oxygen, in this inter-cell signaling between the two cell types.”
The concept itself is rather simple, said Lim, as it looks at how one cell type communicates with another cell type in the heart to foster proper growth and development. When this signaling process is disrupted, heart defects and cardiovascular diseases will arise, presenting a critical problem in the field of cardiac biology.
“It might be challenging to study this process in the hearts of mammals, because they can’t survive long enough to gather any data,” said Lim. “I’m happy to say we have come up with a different system in the fruit fly to bypass this problem.”
Lim has studied heart disease in the fruit fly since she was a postdoctoral fellow at the American Heart Association in 2008. She joined OMRF’s scientific staff in 2011.
This new grant will allow her to gather a potential wealth of information about the effects and consequences of the inhibition of inter-cell signaling for the first time.
“This new information will provide valuable insight into this otherwise little-known but crucial process,” said Lim. “We hope it will facilitate the development of new and improved therapies for human heart disease and heart failure.”