A mysterious ‘zombie gene’ found inside elephants seems to dramatically reduce their chances of contracting cancer.
What’s more, experts believe that producing drugs that mimic this gene could lead to a breakthrough in cancer prevention for humans.
The gene is known as LIF6 and its specific function seems to be targeting abnormal cells that have become cancerous and taking them out.
While the LIF6 gene is dead and non-functioning in other mammals, this isn’t the case in elephants.
Elephants don’t get cancer (Image: Getty)The pioneering pachyderms have seemingly brought this gene back from the dead and are able to use it to become ‘virtually immune’ from contracting cancer.
Researcher Dr Vincent Lynch, from the University of Chicago, US, said: ‘Elephants get cancer far less than we’d expect based on their size, so we want to understand the genetic basis for this cancer resistance.
‘We found that elephants and their relatives have many non-functioning copies of the LIF gene, but that elephants themselves evolved a way to turn one of these copies, LIF6, back on.’
In laboratory experiments, the researchers found that when elephant cells suffer cancer-triggering DNA damage they “just died”.
Cancer cell computer artwork (Image: Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF)The reason turned out to be LIF6, one of multiple copies of the leukaemia inhibitory factor (LIF) gene.
When LIF6 activity was blocked, the damaged cells survived and eventually turned cancerous. And when the gene was introduced to animals that normally lack it, such as mice, they too became cancer-resistant.
LIF6 produces a protein that drills holes in mitochondria (essential cellular powerplants) causing the damaged cells to undergo a form of programmed suicide called apoptosis.
‘Hence, zombie,’ said Dr Lynch.
Elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, May 2004‘This dead gene came back to life. When it gets turned on by damaged DNA, it kills that cell, quickly.’
The scientists now want to apply the elephant’s ability to resist cancer to human biology.
Dr Lynch added: ‘Maybe we can find ways of developing drugs that mimic the behaviours of the elephant’s LIF6 or of getting cancerous cells to turn on their existing zombie copies of the LIF gene.’
Elephants crossing the river in the Tsavo East National Park, Kenya.Elephants are not the only animals to have evolved cancer resistance. Other species including whales, bats and naked mole rats are protected against cancer despite lacking LIF6.
This suggests there are ‘many ways animals can combat cancer’, according to Dr Lynch.
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