Elephants, Bats and Dolphins Could Help Us Cure Human Diseases

Elephants could hold the key to new treatments for cancer after a new study revealed that their cells have special genes that are able to repair mutated DNA. 

A new genetic study in the journal Cell Reports has suggested that the finding could pave the way for new approaches to treating the disease in humans, who share a similar version of these genes, albeit in far fewer numbers.

The scientists at the University of Utah (UU) examined genes that humans share with a variety of animals, and made a number of findings that could lead to new treatments for a host of conditions.

For example, a mutation in the genes of bats that result in their pointy ears can lead to a deformity known as Stahl ear in humans. And another mutation in a gene that is linked to the development of bat wings can lead to fused fingers in people.

GettyImages-915710772 Why don’t elephants get cancer? Elephants could hold the key to new treatments for cancer after a new study revealed that their cells have special genes that are able to repair mutated DNA.  YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Genes that allow dolphins and orcas to adapt to high pressure environments could help us understand blood clotting disorders, while DNA in squirrels linked to skin coloration may shine a light on the development of albinism. Naked mole rat genes linked to eye development could provide insights into our understanding of glaucoma.

For the study, the scientists focused on genes in so-called noncoding regions of the mammalian genome, which make up 98 percent of all DNA. The role of these noncoding regions in health and disease remains unclear.

“People used to call the noncoding regions junk DNA, but I see it as a jungle that has not been explored,” Christopher Gregg, an assistant professor in Neurobiology and Anatomy at UU said in a statement. “We are exploring the noncoding regions to try to discover new parts of the genome that might control different diseases.”

The team searched through these ‘junk’ regions of DNA in the genomes of elephants, hibernating bats, orcas, dolphins, naked mole rats and thirteen-lined ground squirrels to identify sections that have evolved rapidly, leading to some of their unique traits—such as the elephant’s massive size and the bat’s pointy ears.

“We leveraged the extreme traits in different species to uncover noncoding regions in the human genome that likely have important roles in shaping health and disease,” said Elliott Ferris, a bioinformatician and computer programmer in Gregg’s lab and first author of the study.

The researchers say that this method will enable scientists to uncover potential new treatments for diseases by studying the animal kingdom.