May 25, 2009

Cancer drug may block ‘happy hour’ gene

Rats given a cancer-fighting drug spontaneously consume less alcohol, U.S. researchers say.

However, the rat's taste for another rewarding beverage -- sugar water -- is unaffected.

The researchers say erlotinib -- a drug used to treat non-small cell lung cancer -- makes fruit flies and rats more sensitive to alcohol.

This is a very powerful example of how simple model organisms -- and the little fruit fly in particular -- can be used to move quickly from an unknown gene to a potential therapy for drug addiction, study leader Ulrike Heberlein of the University of California, San Francisco, says in a statement.

She explains screening mutant flies for those less sensitive to ethanol led them to the gene they call happyhour. The gene affects Epidermal Growth Factor pathway being studied by cancer researchers. Heberlein and colleagues are trying to determine how alcohol influences the EGF pathway and if new gene candidates -- discovered in the fly screens -- may be tied to the pathway as well.

It's not yet clear how it all fits together, Heberlein said. But the fact that we've come, in an unbiased way, to molecules in the same pathway is telling us this is really, really important.

The findings are published in the journal Cell Press.