Elephants' cancer-resistant gene also found in people

A research team exploring what's known as "junk" DNA in mammals discovered the gene believed to be responsible for elephants' low cancer rate and found that it's in humans as well.

It's known as p53, and it occurs in great abundance within enormous animals, suppressing tumors at a rate that leaves only one in every 20 elephants with cancer while humans contract the disease at a rate of one in five, the researchers at the University of Utah said. Elephants have 40 copies of p53 while humans have only one.

"Junk" DNA is DNA that doesn't code for proteins — what the building blocks of our lives are made up of — but it may have other functions, as some studies have noted, like controlling when genes are expressed, the study, published in Cell Reports, explains.

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Elephant conservation in Malaysia
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Elephant conservation in Malaysia
KUALA GANDAH, MALAYSIA - MARCH 01: An Elephant is seen swimming in a river near the National Elephant Conservation Centre on March 1, 2016 in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia. Almost 1,200 wild Asian Elephants, also known as Elephus Maximus, are left in Malaysia and this is the only conservation centre set up to relocate these displaced pachyderms. The elephants here have been rescued from all over Peninsula Malaysia, providing them a safe sanctuary in the wild, according to World Wildlife Foundation, the increasing human population in Asia has affected the elephant's dense, but diminishing forest habitat. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)
KUALA GANDAH, MALAYSIA - MARCH 01: Foreign tourists are seen bathing with an elephant in a river near the National Elephant Conservation Centre on March 1, 2016 in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia. Almost 1,200 wild Asian Elephants, also known as Elephus Maximus, are left in Malaysia and this is the only conservation centre set up to relocate these displaced pachyderms. The elephants here have been rescued from all over Peninsula Malaysia, providing them a safe sanctuary in the wild, according to World Wildlife Foundation, the increasing human population in Asia has affected the elephant's dense, but diminishing forest habitat. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)
KUALA GANDAH, MALAYSIA - MARCH 01: A Nature guide is seen walking with an elephant after bathing and cleaning in a river near the National Elephant Conservation Centre on March 1, 2016 in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia. Almost 1,200 wild Asian Elephants, also known as Elephus Maximus, are left in Malaysia and this is the only conservation centre set up to relocate these displaced pachyderms. The elephants here have been rescued from all over Peninsula Malaysia, providing them a safe sanctuary in the wild, according to World Wildlife Foundation, the increasing human population in Asia has affected the elephant's dense, but diminishing forest habitat. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)
KUALA GANDAH, MALAYSIA - MARCH 01: Nature guides bath elephant's in a river near the National Elephant Conservation Centre on March 1, 2016 in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia. Almost 1,200 wild Asian Elephants, also known as Elephus Maximus, are left in Malaysia and this is the only conservation centre set up to relocate these displaced pachyderms. The elephants here have been rescued from all over Peninsula Malaysia, providing them a safe sanctuary in the wild, according to World Wildlife Foundation, the increasing human population in Asia has affected the elephant's dense, but diminishing forest habitat. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)
KUALA GANDAH, MALAYSIA - MARCH 01: A Nature guide is seen with an elephant in a river near the National Elephant Conservation Centre on March 1, 2016 in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia. Almost 1,200 wild Asian Elephants, also known as Elephus Maximus, are left in Malaysia and this is the only conservation centre set up to relocate these displaced pachyderms. The elephants here have been rescued from all over Peninsula Malaysia, providing them a safe sanctuary in the wild, according to World Wildlife Foundation, the increasing human population in Asia has affected the elephant's dense, but diminishing forest habitat. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)
KUALA GANDAH, MALAYSIA - MARCH 01: A Nature guide rides an elephant in a river near the National Elephant Conservation Centre on March 1, 2016 in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia. Almost 1,200 wild Asian Elephants, also known as Elephus Maximus, are left in Malaysia and this is the only conservation centre set up to relocate these displaced pachyderms. The elephants here have been rescued from all over Peninsula Malaysia, providing them a safe sanctuary in the wild, according to World Wildlife Foundation, the increasing human population in Asia has affected the elephant's dense, but diminishing forest habitat. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)
This picture taken on November 10, 2015 shows mahouts with their elephants in a river at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia's Pahang state. The conservation centre is a base for the Elephant Relocation Team, which began the elephant translocation programme in 1974. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on November 10, 2015 shows a mahout riding an elephant along a river at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia's Pahang state. The conservation centre is a base for the Elephant Relocation Team, which began the elephant translocation programme in 1974. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on November 10, 2015 shows visitors looking on as mahouts lead their elephants from a river after washing them at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia's Pahang state. The conservation centre is a base for the Elephant Relocation Team, which began the elephant translocation programme in 1974. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on November 10, 2015 shows mahouts riding elephants along a river at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre in Kuala Gandah, Malaysia's Pahang state. The conservation centre is a base for the Elephant Relocation Team, which began the elephant translocation programme in 1974. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A foreign visitor feeds an elephant at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Center in Kuala Gandah, Pahang, on the outside Kuala Lumpur on June 16, 2013. The conservation center is a base for the Elephant Relocation Team, which began the elephant translocation program in 1974. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors play with an elephant in the river at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Center in Kuala Gandah, Pahang, on the outside Kuala Lumpur on June 16, 2013. The conservation center is a base for the Elephant Relocation Team, which began the elephant translocation program in 1974. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Keepers lead the elephants out of the river after cleaning them at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Center in Kuala Gandah, Pahang, on the outside Kuala Lumpur on June 16, 2013. The conservation center is a base for the Elephant Relocation Team, which began the elephant translocation program in 1974. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Keeper rides an elephant in the river at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Center in Kuala Gandah, Pahang, on the outside Kuala Lumpur on June 16, 2013. The conservation center is a base for the Elephant Relocation Team, which began the elephant translocation program in 1974. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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"People used to call the noncoding regions 'junk DNA', but I see it as a jungle that has not been explored," co-author of the study, neurobiologist Christopher Gregg told the UNews. "We are exploring the noncoding regions to try to discover new parts of the genome that might control different diseases."

Three more genes were found while the team scanned the elephant genome for mutation-resistant elements — FANCL, VRK2 and BCL11A — all of which protect the cells of the body from mutating into tumors. Unfortunately, the human versions of these same genes don't protect us from cancer the way they do our long-trunked friends. But that doesn't mean that more can't be learned about how those genes could be manipulated within people with the hope of a similar outcome.

"We are staring at uncharted territory," Gregg said. "This method gives us a new way to explore the genome and potentially uncover new approaches to identify, diagnose and treat disease."

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