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Genes that make elephants resistant to cancer are found in humans

Scientists have discovered genes that make elephants resistant to cancer are also found in humans.

After being exposed to cancer-causing radiation, three genes, known as FANCL, VRK2 and BCL11A, work to guard against mutations, a study found.

As all vertebrates evolved from a common ancestor, humans also have these anti-cancer genes, however, they do not appear to protect against the disease to the same extent.

Nevertheless, researchers hope the findings will lead to new anti-cancer medications in humans.

Study author Dr Christopher Gregg from the University of Utah, said: ‘This method gives us a new way to explore the genome and potentially uncover new approaches to identify, diagnose and treat disease.’ 

Cancer, which occurs when cells multiply uncontrollably, affects around one in 20 elephants, compared to up to one in two humans; despite the animal having hundreds more cells.

Previous research also suggests elephants have 40 copies of the gene p53, which suppresses tumours, while humans have just one.  

Scientists discovered genes that make elephants resistant to cancer are found in humans


A cancer drug is in development that could stop the disease in its tracks, it emerged in January 2018.

The unnamed medication targets a specific enzyme that fuels the spread of tumours, research revealed.

It does this by binding to the membrane of rapidly multiplying cells, a European study found.

This hijacks cancer’s ‘survival mechanism’ and prevents tumours from attaching to the protein they need to thrive. 

The anti-cancer drug binds to cancerous cells’ membrane protein, known as dehydroorotate dehydrogenase (DHODH).

The researchers analysed how fats, which are the building blocks of cell membranes, and drugs bind to DHODH.

Study author Dr Erik Marklund, from Uppsala University, said: ‘Our simulations show the enzyme uses a few lipids as anchors in the membrane.

‘When binding to these lipids, a small part of the enzyme folds into an adapter that allows the enzyme to lift its natural substrate [the substance an enzyme acts on] out of the membrane.

‘It seems the drug, since it binds in the same place, takes advantage of the same mechanism.’ 

Study author Sir David Lane, from the Karolinska Institute, in Sweden, added: ‘The study helps to explain why some drugs bind differently to isolated proteins and proteins that are inside cells.

‘By studying the native structures and mechanisms for cancer targets, it may become possible to exploit their most distinct features to design new, more selective therapeutics.’ 

It is unclear when the drug could be available. 

How the research was carried out   

The researchers analysed DNA that controls gene expression.

They investigated genes that are shared by all vertebrates but evolved more rapidly in elephants.

Gamma radiation, which has known cancer-causing properties, was fired at the genes to assess their abilities to respond to damage. 

The findings were published in the journal Cell Reports.  

What other animals do not get cancer?

Past research from the University of Rochester in New York suggested bowhead whales are immune to cancer.

This is surprising considering their one of the largest animals alive, and therefore have many cells, and can live for hundreds of years.

A study back in 2015 found the whales have mutations that help prevent DNA from being damaged. It is unclear why this occurs.

Naked mole rats, which can live for up to 30 years, also do not appear to develop cancer, which is an otherwise extremely common condition among rodents. 

Research released in 2013 suggested naked mole rats produce a sticky substance known as hyaluronan, which acts like a gloopy protective glass by sitting in the spaces between cells and preventing mutating ones from dividing further. 

Although humans also produce hyaluronan, naked mole rats make more and longer versions. 

Other animals, such as dogs and cats, are highly prone to cancer.