A recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists found that an antibacterial substance that occurs naturally in chickens has the ability to fight cancer cells.

James Womack, Distinguished Professor of Veterinary Pathobiology in Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, and his mainly Korean team from Seoul’s National University assessed 62 White Leghorn and 53 Cornish chickens for differences in NK-lysin, a naturally-occurring antibacterial substance in animals that is used to fight off diseases. The particular breeds were selected because of their relatively diverse genetic origins and because they are prevalent in most parts of the world.

The team managed to obtain two genetic NK-lysin variations and made the staggering discovery that both variations were able to fight off bacterial infections and other diseases, whilst one variation was also able to successfully fight cancer cells.

Photo of Womack, James“It took all of us by surprise. One of the genetic variations shows it has the ability to fight against cancer cells much more aggressively than the other variation,” Womack said according to news reports.  “We certainly were not looking at the cancer side of this, but there it was.”

The team then conducted DNA sequences of the chickens and discovered that two gene variations provided insight into their protective ability to ward off infections. One form appears to be more potent in killing off cancer cells than the other.

“This could lead to other steps to fight cancer or in developing ways to prevent certain infections or even diseases,” Womack added. “It’s another door that has been opened up. We are looking at similar studies right now to see if this is possible with cattle. The next step is to work with other animals and see if similar variants exist. We need to look for any genetic similarities to the chicken variants and then determine if these variants affect the health of the animal, but this is an exciting first step in this direction.”