Fewer than 5 percent of elephants die from cancer, and researchers may have finally figured out why.
According to a study from the University of Chicago, elephants produce "zombie genes" that can help protect the animal from cancer.
Here's how it works: Humans and other animals carry one copy of a "master tumor suppressor" gene. Elephants have 20 copies. Scientists found that gene can trigger a "zombie gene" to come back to life with a new purpose: killing cells in damaged DNA.
"This is beneficial, because it acts in response to genetic mistakes, errors made when the DNA is being repaired," said Vincent Lynch, an assistant professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago and the study's lead author, in a statement. "Getting rid of that cell can prevent a subsequent cancer."
Scientists say the gene also helps elephants enjoy long lives. They likely emerged roughly 25 to 30 million years ago, when groundhog-sized ancestors of modern elephants grew bigger, Lynch said.
Researchers want to conduct more studies to find out exactly how the genes in elephants kill off cells in damaged DNA. That could help humans: Studying how animals' bodies fight off cancer could lead to strategies to treat people. An estimated 17% of people worldwide die of cancer, according to the study published in the journal Cell Reports.
"If we can understand how these genomic changes are contributing to ... cancer resistance, then we'll be able to start thinking about how do we translate this to our patients," Joshua Schiffman, professor of pediatrics at University of Utah and an investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, said in an interview with CNN.
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