Elephants May Protect Themselves From Cancer with a 'Zombie Gene'

Wednesday, 15 August 2018 - 11:12AM
Medical Tech
Wednesday, 15 August 2018 - 11:12AM
Elephants May Protect Themselves From Cancer with a 'Zombie Gene'
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Image Credit: Pixabay Composite
Behind heart disease, cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States, and has been for a while. There have been all kinds of treatments proposed to combat it, ranging from reprogramming cancer cells using CRISPR to using AI to catch it early, but elephants may have it figured out: a team of scientists have discovered that elephants have a unique way to defend themselves against cancer that utilizes a resurrected 'zombie gene' called LIF6.

Elephants are an especially interesting medical case because their huge size (5,000 to 14,000 pounds) means that they should have higher incidences of cancer than humans, but research shows that they may actually have less, thanks to a gene that is as powerful as they are. Based on what we know about biology, larger creatures mean more cells, which means more cell divisions, which usually means more chances for one cell to mutate during the division process and become cancerous. According to a new study, part of the answer to this elephant-sized mystery lies with the protein p53, a gene that has the ability to create proteins that detect when a cell is damaged and trigger other genes that respond by either repairing or destroying the cell.

What's strange about elephants is that they apparently have twenty copies of p53, while humans have only one. In addition, when activated in elephants, the p53 genes skip straight to destroying the damaged cell. This, scientists discovered, is because p53 activates a gene unique to elephants called LIF6, which rips open the mitochondria of a cell and effectively causes it to self-destruct. LIF is a gene carried by almost all mammals that performs tasks like communication between cells, but while most animals have a few copies, elephants have ten of them. One of the older forms of LIF in elephants became useless after mutations stripped it of a way to activate itself, but through some unknown chain of events, that LIF gene became functional again, giving elephants an aggressive and effective way of destroying cancer cells.

According Vincent Lynch, one of the biologists associated with the new study, this discovery may be a major milestone for medical science:

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It might tell us something fundamental about cancer as a process. And if we're lucky, it might tell us something about how to treat human disease.
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