Beloved of genetics researchers for their simplicity, fruit flies may have something to offer the rest of us as well. The genes that are responsible for repairing damage to the fly’s exoskeleton, the combination skin and skeleton that surrounds it, are also found directing processes in human skin, which has a similar structure as well as function. That means that human bodies might be capable of the same sort of damage repair as Drosophila, and opens up possibilities for treatment protocols that take advantage of this.
This is not the fist instance of insects being pressed into service to help injured people. Since ancient times, people have used maggots—fly larvae—to treat wounds. If the injury has resulted in a moist wound on the surface of the body where it is exposed to air, the larvae can destroy dead tissue in the wounded area, and so make healing possible. In addition, there seems to be some evidence that they prevent infection. Medical-grade maggots are used to this day for cleaning and disinfecting some wounds.
The Drosophila study is less dramatic, but no less important. Some of the genes that were looked at are responsible for letting the body know that a wound has occurred, so that the healing process can begin. When the skin is broken, enzymes at the site start guiding the process of repairing the damage, as well as triggering an immune response to help minimize infection. The genes that control this response are the same in people and flies alike. Although the researchers had removed potential infectious agents from the area where they were studying wound healing, they found that the immune response begins immediately, a reaction to the wound itself and not to indications of actual infection.
Researchers have not yet completely established how the mechanism might work in humans, but if it’s similar, this could be used to improve bandages and other wound dressings. Dressings could be made with compounds that help promote and hasten healing.