We Now Know Why Elephants Rarely Get Cancer, And Humans Could Learn From This

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Elephants are awesome, not just because of their distinctively unique look or the fact they are terrified of bees. They are also incredibly resistant to cancer. Despite have such a large body mass with a high number of cells, elephants are estimated to only have a 4.8 percent cancer mortality rate, compared to 25 percent in us puny humans.

Scientists have been mapping the genome of the African elephant, along with a bunch of other mammals that have unique traits, to see if it can help pinpoint similar regions in the human genome, whether we have any of these genetic “superpowers” lurking within our DNA. Unbelievably, our noncoding “junk” DNA appears to share similar cancer-resisting genes as the elephant, a discovery that could open the door to new ways to treat cancer in the future.

“People used to call the noncoding regions junk DNA, but I see it as a jungle that has not been explored,” senior author Christopher Gregg, a neuroscientist and geneticist at the University of Utah, said in a statement. “We are exploring the noncoding regions to try to discover new parts of the genome that might control different diseases.”

As reported in the journal Cell Reports, the scientists looked at the genome with African elephants, hibernating bats, orcas, dolphins, naked mole rats, and thirteen-lined ground squirrels in the hopes of unearthing new “hidden” parts of the human genome.

“This method allows us to shine a light on nature’s potential solutions to disease across the entire animal kingdom,” added co-author Joshua Schiffman. 

Among their most intriguing finds, the team found that elephants have specific variations near three genes, FANCL, VRK2, and BCL11A, that increase their ability to eliminate pre-cancerous cells with DNA damage. They also discovered similar noncoding sequences in the human genome that “may control gene activity and reduce the formation of mutations and cancer.” Science’s challenge is to now find out how they can harness these genomic regions and apply it to human medicine or cancer treatment.

Other animals also showed some fascinating insights into the human genome and medical conditions. They found that the DNA that gives bats their pointy ears, when mutated, can cause an ear deformity in humans called Stahl ear, better known as “Spock ears”. Naked mole rats, a saber-toothed sausage animal that lives in the pitch-black, evolved changes in genes that are related to human glaucoma, a form of visual degeneration.

“We are staring at uncharted territory,” Gregg concluded. “This method gives us a new way to explore the genome and potentially uncover new approaches to identify, diagnose, and treat disease.

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