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Bats flying Researchers believe that bats’ ability to fly may be linked to their special immunity to illness. (David Kjaer / naturepl.com/ NaturePL)

Could Bats Cure Cancer?

Studying these high-flying mammals may give scientists the key to fighting deadly diseases in humans

By Sara Goudarzi | January 31 , 2013
<p>Bats are known to carry deadly diseases like Ebola and Sars without getting sick. (Michael & Patricia Fogden / Minden Pictures)</p>

Bats are known to carry deadly diseases like Ebola and Sars without getting sick. (Michael & Patricia Fogden / Minden Pictures)

Bats are impressive critters. They are known to carry dangerous diseases like Ebola and SARS but somehow avoid getting infected by the viruses themselves.

So researchers wanted to know: How do bats fight off so many deadly diseases? Learning their secret could help doctors better treat humans who have these diseases, thereby saving millions of lives.

To solve this puzzle, a team of researchers from Australia and China analyzed bat DNA. DNA is a chemical that acts as a sort of blueprint for a living creature. A creature’s DNA may be responsible for traits like skin or hair color. Chunks of DNA that express a certain trait are called genes.

The scientists studied two kinds of bats—the Australian megabat, known as the flying fox, and the Chinese microbat. The scientists then sequenced the bat genome (the complete arrangement of DNA) by comparing the DNA of both species.

The researchers now think that the special immunity to illness that bats have may be connected to their ability to fly.

THE FLYING GENE

Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. Flying uses up a lot of energy. The energy burned for flying produces particles in the animal called free radicals. Free radicals can damage DNA and lead to diseases such as cancer.

However, bats are unaffected by free radicals produced during flight. The reason is that bats carry unique genes to deal with toxins and repair any damaged DNA.

SUPERIMMUNITY

Scientists suspect that because bats fly and generate free radicals, they’ve evolved to carry genes that shaped their unique immune system.

“We’re proposing that the evolution of flight led to a sort of spillover effect, influencing not only the immune system, but also things like aging and cancer,” says Chris Cowled, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory. “We think we’ve really found something special.”

Researchers believe that this discovery might one day be key to helping humans fight diseases such as cancer that attack the immune system and damage DNA.

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