University of Utah study reveals elephants rarely get cancer!
Did you know that elephants rarely get cancer? It’s been one of those mysteries that have stumped scientists for decades. There was a study led and conducted by researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah and Arizona State University that may have found an answer to the question the big question about elephants not being prone to cancer.
The study made sure to include the amazing Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conversation and the results are interesting:
“According to the results, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and determined over the course of several years and a unique collaboration between HCI, Primary Children’s Hospital, Utah’s Hoogle Zoo, and the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, elephants have 38 additional modified copies (alleles) of a gene that encodes p53, a well-defined tumor suppressor, as compared to humans, who have only two. Further, elephants may have a more robust mechanism for killing damaged cells that are at risk for becoming cancerous. In isolated elephant cells, this activity is doubled compared to healthy human cells, and five times that of cells from patients with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, who have only one working copy of p53 and more than a 90 percent lifetime cancer risk in children and adults. The results suggest extra p53 could explain elephants’ enhanced resistance to cancer.”
And co-senior author Joshua Schiffman, M.D., is a pediatric oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah School of Medicine and Primary Children’s Hospital. And he thinks nature has found a way to adapt saying:
“Nature has already figured out how to prevent cancer. It’s up to us to learn how different animals tackle the problem so we can adapt those strategies to prevent cancer in people.” And according to Schiffman elephants have been confusing to scientists because they have 100 times as many cells as people and they should be 100 times more likely to have a “cell slip,” and develop a cancerous state and trigger the disease over their life span of 50 to 70 years. But it’s believed that elephants get cancer a lot less often—a theory confirmed this study after an analysis of a large database of elephant deaths was conducted and estimated a cancer mortality rate of less than 5 percent compared to the 11-12% in human beings.”
Scientists wanted more of an answer and combed through the African elephant genome and found about 40 copies of genes that code for p53 (a protein well known for it’s cancer inhibiting properties) and the study states:
“DNA analysis provides clues as to why elephants have so many copies, a substantial increase over the two found in humans. The vast majority, 38 of them, are so-called retrogenes, modified duplicates that have been churned out over evolutionary time.
Schiffman’s team collaborated with Utah’s Hogle Zoo and Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation to test whether the extra gene copies may protect elephants from cancer. They extracted white blood cells from blood drawn from the animals during routine wellness checks and subjected the cells to treatments that damage DNA, a cancer trigger. In response, the cells reacted to damage with a characteristic p53-mediated response: they committed suicide.”
“It’s as if the elephants said, ‘It’s so important that we don’t get cancer, we’re going to kill this cell and start over fresh,'” says Schiffman. “If you kill the damaged cell, it’s gone, and it can’t turn into cancer. This may be more effective of an approach to cancer prevention than trying to stop a mutated cell from dividing and not being able to completely repair itself. “By all logical reasoning, elephants should be developing a tremendous amount of cancer, and in fact, should be extinct by now due to such a high risk for cancer,” says Schiffman. “We think that making more p53 is nature’s way of keeping this species alive.” Additional studies will be needed to determine whether p53 directly protects elephants from cancer. Twenty years ago, we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation to preserve the endangered Asian elephant for future generations. Little did we know then that they may hold the key to cancer treatment,” said Kenneth Feld, Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment.
“The incredible bond our staff has with these majestic animals, and the hands-on care provided at the Center for Elephant Conservation, allows us to easily provide the blood samples Dr. Schiffman needs to further his research,” said Alana Feld, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment and producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. “We look forward to the day when there is a world with more elephants and less cancer.”
The study is quite intriguing, I mean it represents one way evolution may have overcome cancer. And eve more evidence suggests that naked role rats and bowhead whales have evolved different approaches to the problem of cancer. Schiffman plans to use what he has learned in elephants as a startegy for developing cancer-fighting therapies.
What do you guys think about the fact that elephants rarely get cancer? Do you think it could help scientists learn more about ways for us to fight cancer? It’s pretty cool that elephants and other animals have developed and evolved in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.
Elephants rarely get cancer