Elephants Have a “Zombie Gene” Protecting Them From Cancer. We Have It Too!

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Out of the worldwide elephant population, less than 5% die from cancer. Researchers have finally found out why elephants rarely get cancer.

The University of Chicago researchers have studied why elephants are less likely to develop cancer, and they found out that these animals produce “zombie genes” that protect them from the disease.

This gene is unique, and it almost makes them immune to cancer!

The Science Behind “Zombie Gene” – LIF6

Some mammals in the world have a gene called LIF6 (leukemia inhibitory factor 6) which is dead and doesn’t function – thus dubbed as “zombie gene.” Humans are among the mammals that have this gene.

The leader of this research and assistant professor of human genetics, Dr. Vincent Lynch (University of Chicago), explains their findings:

“This is beneficial, because it acts in response to genetic mistakes, errors made when the DNA is being repaired. Getting rid of that cell can prevent a subsequent cancer.”

This gene is alive in elephants and it helps them fight against cancer, added Dr. Lynch:

“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.”

Scientists also found out that this gene is responsible for the long life of the pachyderms, which might have been passed from the smaller ancient elephants which lived 25-30 million years ago.

Searching For a Way to Turn On the LIF6 in Humans

Lynch explains that the “elephants and their relatives have many non-functioning copies of the LIF gene,” but they found out that “elephants themselves evolved a way to turn one of these copies, LIF6, back on.”

These genes target cells that are ready to mutate and become cancerous, and researchers saw that when it happened, the mutations “just died.”

To see if LIF6 really is connected to the death of cancerous mutations, they blocked LIF6 activity and found that the mutated cells didn’t die and started turning cancerous.

This is how elephants are protected from the fatal disease.

Lynch hopes that the research will carry on an that they can find a life-saving treatment for cancer:

“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.”

Rex Austin

Rex Austinwas born and raised in Thunder Bay Ontario on the shores of Lake Superior. Apart from running his own podcast (Ice Fishing And Other “Cool” Things), he spends his time canoeing and backpacking in Northern Ontario.. As a journalist Rex has published stories for Global News (Thunder Bay) we well as Buzz Feed and Joystiq. As a contributor to Great Lakes Ledger, Rex most covers science and health stories. Contact Rexhere