Fruit flies helping researchers diagnose and find treatments for unusual diseases

A researcher at Baylor College of Medicine has been fighting Cystic Fibrosis, which is an incurable condition, most of his life, but he turns that into a positive situation by finding solutions for other families dealing with a "tough to cure" disease.

We caught up with Michael Harnish, to find out how a tiny and unlikely source is helping him help others.

We're talking about fruit flies. He has been studying them for seven years.

"Most of what I do is with the Undiagnosed Disease Network. We'll get patients referred to those going down the diagnostic odyssey, who are dealing with a condition for five or six years.  They go to the best hospitals and doctors in the world, but still no answers of why they're sick.  It's also a lot of pediatrics - why their child is sick," says Harnish.

His mission is to find out why they're sick and turns to fruit flies to search for answers. He has been able to unravel dozens of mysteries by doing this.

It all starts by giving fruit flies carbon dioxide.

"It knocks them out temporarily - as long as gas is in, they sleep, turn it off and they wake up in five minutes and will be happy again," says Harnish.      

Why fruit flies? They're actually one of the oldest genetic models and have helped researchers better understand human DNA since the early 1900's.

"We can insert genes into them and make them express those genes and turn on those proteins with fly genes we can also do this with human genes. Our flies have a human gene in them and they're making a human protein.  So what we can start to do - a person with a mutation - take two fruit flies - one make a normal protein and another make another protein you see in the patient - and if there's a difference you'd expect to see it in the flies," states Harnish.

From there, they can sometimes find a treatment or at least connect patients together with a similar condition. Harnish says the fruit fly research has been so effective, it has gained interest from the National Institutes of Health to expand the program, and hopefully find life-changing information for even more patients.

He has never studied his own disease, Cystic Fibrosis, but is thankful for the researchers who do study it.

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