It’s not just gee-whiz science, either. By picking apart the inner workings of genes and molecules in the animal kingdom, scientists hope to unravel new ways to prevent or even treat cancer in humans.
“This is where the field is moving as a whole,” Schiffman said. “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?”
In elephants, however, one copy seems to have reanimated and “evolved a new on-off switch” that responds to DNA damage, Lynch said. His study’s findings comprise one piece of a larger puzzle, he added.
“There’s probably lots of things which can contribute to augumented cancer resistance, and we found one of them in elephants,” said Lynch.
“The way we normally think that evolution works is by acquiring lots and lots of genetic changes,” he said. “Each one of them contributes a small effect.
“And when you add all those things together, you end up with a super cancer-resistant elephant.”
A mammoth problem … for humans
“All cells get mutated all the time,” said University of Utah’s Schiffman. “My cells are mutating. Your cells are mutating. But hopefully our DNA repair genes are able to catch them.
“Cancer likes to shut these genes off.”
Schiffman, who was not involved in Lynch’s study, described the new report as part of a growing body of evidence of ways animals have evolved to bolster how their cells naturally fight DNA damage and DNA mutations.
Humans normally have just two copies of p53 — a less robust form than in elephants. And when that gene is mutated or inactivated, as with many of Schiffman’s patients, cancer is allowed to grow unchecked.
In elephants, p53 also revs up the zombie gene, according to Lynch’s study. Though experts say more research is needed to confirm these findings and figure out exactly how the zombie gene kills cells on a molecular level.
“This will not be the final story,” Schiffman said.
“It’s a very fine-tuned system,” said Gorbunova, who stressed the importance of taking a closer look at these “unusual organisms” that rarely develop cancer.
“I think we have to study all of these cancer-resistant animals and then choose strategies that are most easy to apply to people,” she said.
That means that zoologists, veterinarians, anthropologists, mathematicians and human doctors must “come together with a common cause,” said Schiffman, whose colleagues also include elephant conservationists “to study those rare times when they do develop cancer.”
“When we put on our clinician’s hat … do we look for drugs that are affecting the same pathways?” Schiffman said.
“Evolution has been at work evolving cancer-resistant organisms for … millions of years,” Lynch said. “So why not just look to evolution to give us insight into how we might be able to do that?”
News credit : Cnn