Chickens have given scientists a new clue in fighting cancer and bacterial infections.

Researchers found two variants of NK Lysin gene that could fight cancer and even bacterial infections. NK lysin is an antibacterial substance that occurs naturally in animals and is used as a method of fighting off diseases.

“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. We certainly were not looking at the cancer side of this, but there it was," said James Womack, Professor of Veterinary Pathobiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and co-author of the paper.

The researchers studied 62 White Leghorn and 53 Cornish chickens for diversity in NK-lysin, which is a naturally occurring antibacterial substance in animals.

Womack and his team conducted DNA sequencing and found the two genetic variants which could help fight infections and possibly help fight cancer.

They chose Leghorn and Cornish chickens because they are found all over the world and are genetically diverse.

“One form appears to be more potent in killing off cancer cells than the other, and that’s the one that naturally caught our eye,” Womack said.

Previous research has shown that NK-Lysin is effective in destroying bacteria and even certain tumor cells without affecting the blood cells.

“This could lead to other steps to fight cancer or in developing ways to prevent certain infections or even diseases. 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," Womack added.

Researchers say that they will now be looking for other variants to determine what effects it has on animals.

“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," Womack said.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists.