Cancer is a big problem for humans, but it also affects countless other species on our planet. Elephants, however, have demonstrated an amazing ability to avoid the disease, and a new study may have finally figured out why: a “zombie gene” that kills off would-be cancer cells before they even have a chance to take over.

The research effort, which was led by scientists at the University of Chicago, set out to answer the question as to why an animal as big as an elephant would have a dramatically lower cancer rate than smaller creatures, such as humans. What they discovered was that their genes are working overtime to stop cancer in its tracks.

By testing how living cells of an elephant react to damage that could cause them to become cancerous, the scientists observed something very odd. A protein known as p53, which has the ability to detect tumors in mammals, does something special for elephants. It actually wakes up an otherwise dormant, “dead” gene called LIF6, when it detects damaged DNA and orders the killing of cells that may turn cancerous.

When the damaged cells are snuffed out they no longer have even the slightest chance of turning into a tumor. The researchers further tested this function by damaging elephant cells and then suppressing LIF6, at which point the cells behaved like those you’d find it other animals, enduring damage and turning cancerous. It quickly became clear that LIF6 is acting as a watchdog for the creatures, shutting down would-be cancer cells before they can truly take root inside the animals.

This is great news for pachyderms, but what about humans? Well, we can’t selectively evolve the same cancer-blocking cell gene behavior, but knowing how the cancer-killing process works in elephants could yield new treatments that work along the same lines.

“Maybe we can find ways of developing drugs that mimic the behaviors of the elephant’s LIF6 or of getting cancerous cells to turn on their existing zombie copies of the LIF gene,” Vincent Lynch, senior author of the study, notes. We’ll keep our fingers crossed!

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