Elephants rarely suffer from cancer due to a so-called zombie gene, and understanding it may be the key to protecting humans from the dreaded disease.

A previous study that was published earlier this year took a look at why elephants rarely get cancer, despite being huge animals. More cells would mean a higher risk of at least one of them mutating and resulting in cancer, but that is not happening in elephants. 

Elephants Should Be Dying To Cancer More Often, But They're Not

Research has shown that elephants are not more prone to cancer than smaller animals. In fact, it appears that elephants have a lower risk of contracting cancer compared to humans.

The study by University of Utah researchers discovered that the immune cells of elephants quickly repaired damaged DNA after being exposed to radiation, partially explaining their resistance to cancer.

New research published in the Cell Reports journal provided further information on why elephants are not dying to cancer as often as they should be.

The Cancer-Fighting Zombie Gene Of Elephants

Researchers have discovered a unique gene in elephants that aggressively kills cells that have had their DNA damaged.

This gene, over the centuries of evolution, became dormant among elephants. However, in some way, it was resurrected, granting it the moniker as a "zombie" gene.

The earlier research on elephants' resistance to cancer focused on the anti-cancer gene p53. While humans only have one copy of the gene, elephants have 20 copies. University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Vincent J. Lynch and his colleagues, however, looked further, and found the LIF6 gene.

LIF6 gene is apparently only found in elephants. When DNA is damaged, the p53 proteins in elephants activate the LIF6 genes, which make proteins that travel to the cell's mitochondria. The LIF6 proteins create holes in the mitochondria, allowing toxic molecules to flow out and kill the cell.

Experts are saying that more research is needed to confirm the findings made by Lynch and his team, and that there are even more steps before the discovery is tested or used for cancer treatment on humans.

University of Rochester professor of biology and Rochester Aging Research Center co-director Vera Gorbunova, who was not involved in the study, said that one of the steps may be injecting the elephant genes into lab mice, which do not possess the same cancer resistance.

Gorbunova also raised the fact that there are small animals that are resistant to cancer, such as naked mole rats, grey squirrels, and microbats.

"I think we have to study all of these cancer-resistant animals and then choose strategies that are most easy to apply to people," Gorbunova said.

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