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Developmental Biology

Developmental biology has always been a very exciting field of study and it gained worldwide attention in 1995 with the capture of the Nobel Prize in medicine by three researchers who uncovered the genes and proteins that form the first specialized structures in a fruit fly body. Over the past decade, researchers have been astonished to find that these genes have counterparts in species across the animal kingdom, including the human. In fact, more and more scientists and physicians know that developmental biology relies on Drosophila as one of its premier experimental organisms, that organisms from fly to humans have similar developmental genes, and that the cross-species similarity offers a new tool for understanding a question the biotech industry has been working on for years: how to regulate cell differentiation, the creation of specialized cell types from uncommitted cells. Several investors have now realized that developmental biology is not only fundamental, basic and academic, but that it may revolutionize drug discovery. Indeed, several firms are trying to change the biotech industry's chaotic search for human genes into a systematic dissection of developmental signaling in lab organisms, the potential payoff being drugs that rejuvenate damaged tissues by recreating a piece of the embryo in the adult.

The relevance of our Program in modern biology is highlighted in two articles that were published in Science.

The article "Gene Linked to Commonest Cancer"1 by Elizabeth Pennisi is a very nice example of how Drosophila research can have an impact on human biology. It also demonstrates how important interactions, team work, and collaborations are between scientists working on different species. Although most skin cancers are triggered by exposure to the sun, some people are genetically predisposed to develop them. People with the rare hereditary condition known as Gorlin's or basal cell nevus syndrome, for example, develop basal cell carcinoma as well as certain developmental abnormalities. Now, two teams of researchers have identified the gene at fault, and it turns out to be the human version of patched, a gene first identified as a component of a key developmental pathway in the fruit fly (Johnson et al., pp.1668-71). Researchers hope that what is already known about patched will give them a clearer picture of how the basal cell carcinoma develops, and possibly lead to new, nonsurgical treatments for the skin cancer. In addition, a second paper (Dominguez et al., pp.1621-25) further clarifies the operation of the pathway to which patched belongs.

The article "Biotech Finds a Growth Industry"2 by Wade Roush explains the future of developmental biology in the biotech industry and the high hopes of young developmental biology firms of treating disease with model organisms and the regenerative power of the embryo. Because species from fruit flies to humans have similar developmental genes, these companies rely on model organisms to find human genes, aiming to eventually treat diseases ranging from Parkinson's disease to skin cancer. Investors are pumping in money, although these young firms face a maze of scientific and commercial obstacles before they mature into commercially successful ventures.


1. Volume 272, Number 5268, 14 June 1996, pp. 1583-1584.
©1996 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science

2. Volume 273, Number 5273, 19 July 1996, pp. 300-301.
©1996 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science

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