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Elephants' "zombie" gene may shed light on cancer prevention

A new study finds elephants may hold a genetic key to preventing cancer. Since these giant animals have many times more cells in their bodies than smaller creatures, it would be logical to expect that they'd develop cancer at higher rates. But in fact they rarely do. The study, published in the journal Cell Reports, suggests elephants may have protection from cancer because of a unique "zombie" gene.

Maya Wei-Haas of National Geographic wrote about the research in her article, "Cancer Rarely Strikes Elephants. New Clues Suggest Why." She explained to CBS News that mammals of all sizes have what are called LIF genes; LIF stands for Leukemia Inhibitory Factor. However, elephants have up to 11 copies, and one of them — known as LIF6 — plays a key role in determining what happens to damaged cells. 

"Elephants, along with other animals, sort of have this master regulator that decides, OK, if this cell is damaged does it go and get repaired or does it actually go and have to undergo cell death," she said. "Elephants tend to undergo cell death much more rapidly than other animals."

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Research finds the so-called "zombie" gene may be the reason why elephants rarely develop cancer.

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In humans, Wei-Haas said our cells attempt to fix themselves more often. Because of that, damaged cells have the potential of becoming cancerous.

Wei-Haas said LIF6 appeared in elephants millions of years ago and was originally inactive. Researchers believe over time, the gene started working.

"It took elephants millions of years to figure out how to do this and so if we can potentially tap into that, and find some insights into how they prevent cancer, the idea is that we can translate those to treatments in humans," she said. "Of course, we still have a ways to go, but every step is kind of just finding another piece to this really big puzzle that they're working on assembling."