A team of researchers has determined that the same genes that make elephants unaffected by cancer also exist in the human DNA. The team from the University of Utah made the extraordinary discovery by analyzing the DNA of these mammals, which unlike most mammals in the world, appear to be completely resistant to cancer, and even though they are not immune, when compared to humans, they are rarely affected by this condition which is incredible if we take into account that their number of cells is 100 times higher than the number of cells present in our bodies.
The cancer occurs during the cell division process, which makes it extremely curious that only 1 in 20 elephants are affected by the condition, since 1 in 5 humans suffers from it.
This fact has intrigued scientists since it was first detected, but it was only a few years ago that the team noticed the high abundance of the P53 gene, which is responsible for the suppression of tumors in these mammals, but while the African Elephant has 40 copies of P53, the common human only has one gene.
The team of scientists decided to further study the motive behind this strange case, and concluded that this was not only due to the abundant existence of the P53 gene. By studying a type of DNA known as “junk DNA” because it does not encode proteins, they detected that this type of DNA has other functions, such as controlling when and where the genes are expressed, and scientists believe that this unexplored DNA, can control the appearance of various diseases.
They then proceeded to analyze the parts of the genome of the elephant that are common to all vertebrates, but underwent through a more rapid evolution in the case of the latter in order to detect how such regions could help to obtain elements that could help resist mutations such as cancer.
Three different genes were then identified in the DNA of the elephants respectively, FANCL, VRK2 and BCL11A identified after the exposure of the mammalian DNA to gamma radiation and subsequent analysis of the resulting damage, these genes having in particular been involved in the DNA repair process that protects the rest of it from the mutations.
Since, to the best of our knowledge, all vertebrates have evolved from a common ancestor, they share much of their DNA, as do many of the mammals. Although human-like genes do not protect us from cancer, the simple identification of the genes responsible for this function in elephants can help us to further reduce the number of elephants affected, as well as possibly make a change in our own DNA that can help combat the genetic mutations that affect us, such as cancer.
Further studies will be needed to understand whether the manipulation of these regions in other mammals may help them to prevent, control and even eradicate this and other diseases, which is a very unknown area of the genome and a very unexplored approach.