DNA repair may be a cancer-fighting talent of bowhead whales.

DNA repair may be a cancer-fighting talent of bowhead whales.

Bowhead whales in Alaska’s northernmost point, on the edges of the frigid Arctic Ocean, have provided scientists with a window into longevity. Tissue samples collected from the giant sea creatures, which can live for more than 200 years, creatures suggest a capacity for repairs that could help to explain this.

According to Orsolya Vincze, an evolutionary ecology expert at the French National Center of Scientific Research in Paris who was not involved in the study, the ability of the animals to repair harm that would otherwise end up in genetic errors that could lead to cancer is promising.

Scientists have already talked about the molecular defenses against cancer that other animals employ. The most recent study, according to Vincze, “shows that the whales tackled the resistance of cancer from a very new standpoint.”

The bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus, is one of the heavier mammals on Earth and can reach lengths of up to 18 meters. It weighs nearly as much as six fully laden school buses at over 80,000 pounds. Additionally, there is a potential that a harmful mutation could develop whenever a cell divides. The oversized animals seem to be more resistant to cancer, which is a mystery known as Peto’s paradox.

That implies the animals “have much stronger cancer defenses,” according to Lisa Abegglen, a researcher in cell biology at University of Utah Health in Utah’s Salt Lake City who wasn’t involved in the new research.

That is one strategy to avoid issues from damaged DNA, said Marc Tollis, an evolutionary scientist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff who was not involved in the new research. Another strategy is to “taking the hit,” as he puts it, “and immediately try to fix it.”

The mammals may employ this alternative technique, according to hints from the bowhead whale genome that were predicted nearly ten years ago (SN: 1/6/15). Tollis notes that in order to verify those predictions, one must conduct real tests.

Vera Gorbunova, a co-author of the study and an associate professor at University of Rochester in New York State, and her colleagues conducted a number of studies in the lab using cells isolated from bowhead whale tissue as well as human, cow, and mouse cells.

Double-strand breaks, which separate both strands of the double helix of DNA, can be effectively and precisely repaired by whale cells. The study discovered that whale repair repaired damaged DNA to comparable state more frequently than cells from other mammals. In those animals, repairs to the genome appeared to be shoddier, like a pair of jeans that had been shoddily patched. The group also discovered the DNA repair crew’s two proteins, CIRBP and RPA2, in the cells of bowhead whales.

Finding out how animals fight cancer is “incredibly exciting,” according to Abegglen, “because all of these methods have the potential to be transformed into successful treatments for those diagnosed with cancer.” Although, the latest findings highlight the importance of researching animals with low rates of cancer, she says, even if that day may be a long way off. Abegglen is interested in seeing how well the team’s findings hold up in cells from humpback whale and dolphins to see if those animals have distinct immune systems.

Vincze asserts that these and other animals with enormous bodies and protracted lifespans can teach us a lot. She claims that the remedy for cancer is probably already present in nature. We just have to find it.”

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