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 October 22, 2021

Gorbunova, Seluanov, and Zhao show how selfish genetic elements that can cause tumors may also trigger the death of cancer cells

Selfish genetic elements were once thought to be merely parasites of the genome. But researchers at the University of Rochester have discovered that this so-called “junk DNA” may actually be key to preventing tumors.

The researchers, including Vera Gorbunova, the Doris Johns Cherry professor of biology; Andrei Seluanov, professor of biology; and Yang Zhao, a former postdoctoral research associate in Gorbunova’s lab, report in a paper in Nature Immunology that blind mole rats use selfish genetic elements called retrotransposons to shield themselves from cancer. The findings provide new insights into the mechanisms that kill cancer cells—and may be useful in developing future cancer treatments for humans.

“Retrotransposable elements were traditionally viewed as mutagens that impose cancer risks and advance aging,” says Zhao, the lead author of the paper. “Our new study suggests, however, that retrotransposable elements can actually suppress tumors.”