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Unique biology of bats may hold secrets of cancer resistance

A new study published by Oxford University Press uncovers the evolutionary adaptations in bats that may explain their extraordinary capability to ward off infections and resist cancer. This discovery, believed to be associated with bats’ rapid evolution, may have promising implications for cancer research.

Bats have long fascinated scientists due to their unique attributes. Not only are they the only mammals capable of sustained flight, but they also boast long lifespans, remarkably low cancer rates, and incredibly robust immune systems. 

Furthermore, it is widely believed that bats played a pivotal role in the emergence of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus. Their peculiar ability to tolerate various viral infections possibly arises from distinct features in their innate immune response.

Implications for human health 

The implications of understanding bats are far-reaching, especially for human health. Gaining insights into the bat immune system’s mechanisms that enable it to withstand viral infections might pave the way for better strategies in preventing zoonotic disease transmissions to humans. 

Furthermore, by comparing the genomic data of bats to other mammals more susceptible to cancer, researchers could unearth new knowledge about cancer’s origins and its intricate relationship with immunity. 

While mice remain a primary organism for experimental studies due to their ease of manipulation, they lack many attributes relevant to human diseases. In contrast, bats offer a more comprehensive perspective.

Focus of the study

“The ability of bats to tolerate viral infections may stem from unusual features of their innate immune response. Together, these adaptations make bats a powerful system for investigating a wide variety of genotype-to-phenotype relationships, including several with implications for human health,” wrote the study authors. 

“For example, by better understanding the mechanisms of the bat immune system that allow them to tolerate viral infections, researchers may be better able to prevent zoonotic outbreaks.”

“In addition, comparative genomic analyses of bats and cancer-susceptible mammals may shed new light on the causes of cancer and links between cancer and immunity.”

How the research was conducted 

For their investigation, the researchers used the Oxford Nanopore Technologies long-read platform, along with bat samples from the American Museum of Natural History in Belize. The genomes of two bat species, the Jamaican fruit bat and the Mesoamerican mustached bat, were sequenced. 

The team conducted an extensive comparative genomic analysis involving various bats and other mammals.

“Our comparative genomic analysis of these genome sequences, which have been released as a public resource, provides several new insights into unique features of innate immune response and cancer resistance in bats,” said the researchers.

What the researchers discovered 

The scientists identified genetic modifications in six DNA repair-related proteins in bats. 

Furthermore, 46 proteins related to cancer suppression were found to be altered in bats. These modified genes related to cancer were present over two times more in bats than in other mammals.

“By generating these new bat genomes and comparing them to other mammals we continue to find extraordinary new adaptations in antiviral and anticancer genes,” said study lead author Armin Scheben. 

“These investigations are the first step towards translating research on the unique biology of bats into insights relevant to understanding and treating aging and diseases, such as cancer, in humans.”

The study is published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution.

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