This is what superheroes are made of.
Well, not really, but it’s as close as we can get: out of a study including 600,000 people found 13 that should’ve developed diseases, yet remained completely healthy.
Why? It’s all thanks to what scientists are calling ‘superhero DNA’, which a very small number of people are born with. It supposedly protects the body from genetic diseases the host should otherwise contract, like cystic fibrosis, for example.
Scientists are now trying to discover exactly how this rare DNA protects the body, so they can harness its power into new medical therapies.
Researchers understand that diseases are the onset of an error in the DNA code. The only approach to studying this has always been from trying to see what the error is, and going from there to remedy the problem. This time, the international team of researchers tried the opposite tactic – searching for people harbouring damaging mutations, but who remain healthy.
“Millions of years of evolution have produced far more protective mechanisms than we currently understand,” said Dr. Eric Schadt from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
“Most genomic studies focus on finding the cause of a disease, but we see tremendous opportunity in figuring out what keeps people healthy.”
The 13 people amazingly resisted diseases that would’ve devastated anyone else with ‘regular’ DNA. The report claims the diseases were so severe, it was “highly unlikely that such an individual would have manifested the disease without it being clearly annotated in their health records”.
“Finding these individuals is a starting point to searching for the other changes, eg in the genome, that might give us clues to develop therapies,” added Prof. Stephen Friend, also from the Icahn School of Medicine.
“Study the healthy, don’t just study the sick.”
Unfortunately, at least with the 13 ‘superheroes’ discovered in the study, the trail ends with them for now. Because of the consent rules signed when their DNA sample was taken, the scientists can’t seek these individuals out and discover what’s really protecting them.
“Because of the inability to confirm the source or validity of the variants and the inability to recontact the individuals, this paper does not constitute a proof of principle,” Dr. Ada Hamosh, from Johns Hopkins University, argued.
While that may be true, the same research team is preparing a new study where they will be able to trace patients post-study, and get the answers they can’t get from this one.
Thanks to the new approach of studying the healthy, they’re at least asking the right questions now.