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Why don't elephants get cancer?
Researchers have now found that elephants carry a gene that makes them virtually immune to cancer. The rare gene LIF6 is also referred to by the experts as the zombie gene and is dead or inoperable in almost every other mammal on the planet.
In their current study, the University of Chicago scientists found that a special gene in elephants protects animals from cancer. The doctors published the results of their study in the English-language journal "Cell Reports".
What does the LIF6 gene do?
The gene called LIF6 fights cancerous mutations in elephants. The life-saving LIF6 gene attacks cells that are about to mutate into cancer cells. It then forces such cells to die and this saves the elephant from the fatal disease, the experts explain. The scientists hope that drugs that mimic the effects of the LIF6 gene could lead to revolutionary new treatment options for cancer patients in the future.
What is the genetic basis of cancer resistance in elephants?
The more cells an animal has, the more possibilities there should be for a tumor to develop. Despite their enormous size, this rule does not apply to elephants. That is why doctors now wanted to find out which genetic basis is responsible for this cancer resistance. It was found that elephants and their relatives have many non-functioning copies of the so-called LIF gene, but that elephants themselves have found a way to reactivate one of these copies (LIF6), explains the study author Dr. Vincent Lynch from the University of Chicago. This is also the reason why the researchers nicknamed the gene zombie gene.
Dangerous mutant cells died in elephants
In laboratory experiments, the scientists found that the potentially fatal mutations died when elephant cells suffer from cancer-causing DNA damage. This life-saving defense system is triggered by the presence of LIF6, one of several copies of the leukemia inhibiting factor (LIF) gene, the doctors explain.
LIF6 also protected other animals from cancer
When scientists artificially blocked LIF6 activity in the animal, the damaged cells survived and eventually became cancerous. When the gene was introduced into animals that were normally lacking, such as mice, they also became resistant to cancer. LIF6 produces a protein that drills holes in the mitochondria. As a result, the damaged cells experience a form of programmed suicide known as apoptosis, the experts explain. If the gene is triggered by damaged DNA, it quickly kills that cell. The gene was previously activated by another well-known tumor suppressing gene (p53), which is itself activated by cancer-inducing DNA damage.
Can people artificially activate their LIF gene?
Scientists are now planning to apply the elephant's ability to resist cancer to human biology. Perhaps ways can be found to develop drugs that mimic the behavior of LIF6 in elephants or cause cancer cells to turn on their existing zombie versions of the LIF gene, says Dr. Lynch.
Other animals are also protected from cancer
Elephants are not the only animals that have developed natural resistance to cancer. Whales, bats and naked mole rats are also protected against cancer despite the lack of LIF6, the doctors explain. This suggests that there are many ways that animals can fight cancer, adds Dr. Lynch added. (as)