They said that fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, will help unravel what genes and gene pathways are involved in the metabolic changes that lead to insulin resistance and full-blown diabetes in humans.
"These mutant flies show symptoms that look very similar to human diabetes," said lead researcher Leslie Pick, an associate professor in the department of entomology.
"They have the hallmark characteristic which is elevated blood sugar levels. They are also lethargic and appear to be breaking own their fat tissue to get energy, even while they are eating, a situation in which normal animals would be storing fat, not breaking it down," Pick added.
During the research, Pick and her team, which included Univerity of Maryland researchers Hua Zhang, Jingnan Liu, and Caroline Li, Associate Professor Bahram Momen and former Johns Hopkins University Associate Professor Dr. Ronald Kohanski, used genetic approaches to delete a cluster of five genes encoding insulin-like peptides (Drosophila insulin-like peptides, DILPs) in the Drosophila melanogaster fruit fly.
"When we compare the mutants with a normal fly that has been starved, they look the same in that they are both breaking down their fat to get energy," Pick said.
This mimics a clinical feature of diabetic patients resulting from the fact that nutrients are present but the body cannot utilize them and thus mounts a starvation response, breaking down energy stores to obtain nutrients.
"We can use these defects underlying human diabetes and to identify genes and target points for pharmacological intervention," she said.
The relationship between fly and human genes is so close that human genes, including disease genes, can often be matched against their fly counterparts.
"Way more is shared between flies and humans than we ever would have expected before we started identifying the genes," said Pick.
The study appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.