It is widely known among scientists that cancer is very rare among elephants. The fact is surprising among most people seeing that elephants are much larger creatures than humans with so many more cells. So scientists finally set out to not only figure out exactly why this is, but to find out if there could be an answer in there that could help to bring down the cancer rate in humans.
Researchers on the mission to find out why are confident that their journey will in fact also help lead to new ways to protect humans from cancer, or so they hope.
Elephants’ cells have 20 copies of a major cancer-suppressing gene compared to only one copy found in humans. Already, that’s double the protection from the terminal disease. This gene is responsible for helping damaged cells repair themselves or self-destruct when it is exposed to any cancer-causing substances in the body, according to Sci-Tech Today.
What researchers have discovered is not necessarily proof that those extra p53 genes make the elephant super cancer-resistant. But, with further research into the matter, scientists are sure that it could help them get one step closer in developing drugs for humans that could mimic the effect these genes have in elephants.
On the case is Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric cancer specialist at the University of Utah. Dr. Schiffman led one of the teams through the research. He was motivated years prior by a lecture about Peto’s paradox which refers to the fact that large animals, including elephants and whales, actually have an extremely low cancer rate in comparison to humans even though they are considerably larger in size and have so many more cells than smaller species.
During the lecture that Dr. Schiffman attended, the speaker said that elephants actually have extra copies of the p53 gene. This sparked his attention even further, as his patients include children with incomplete p53 genes due to a condition called Li-Fraumeni syndrome. This condition is known to greatly increase their chances of developing cancer at some point.
From this, Dr. Schiffman set out to find evidence from the blood of eight elephants from the Ringling Bros. circus animals and local zoo animals. With this test, in which he recruited a large team of scientists for, let them find the copies of the gene in the elephants while they found that many other species have only one copy, just like humans do.
They further compared the effects of radiation on the elephant cells in comparison to the cells from 10 healthy people and 10 patients who had Li-Fraumeni syndrome. Going in, the team knew that cells that don’t self-repair or self-destruct when exposed to carcinogens become more prone to develop cancer. The scientists found that elephant cells self-destruct at twice the rate of healthy human cells and at more than five times the rate of cells from the patients with the syndrome causing them to be more likely to develop cancer.
The findings find his teams experiment was published on Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although the finding from the study were agreed to be intriguing, Dr. Judy Garber, director of cancer genetics and preventions at Dana-Farmer Cancer Institute in Boston, also noted that the study is very preliminary.
Dr. Ted Gansler of the American Cancer Society said that the research was a step in the right direction in terms of progress against cancer, even “from unexpected directions,” such as this new study. He also agreed that the work was preliminary, and would not lead to any immediate treatment options for humans.
Dr. Schiffman’s research also reached further than the genes and cancer rates. He had teams analyze necropsy data which revealed that elephants live as long as humans in some cases, but, only 1 in 20 die of cancer. In humans, the rate is 1 in 4.
Another team of his researchers worked with frozen zoo specimens. In this part of the study, they looked at more than 60 other species and found that only elephants and wooly mammoths had that extra copy of cancer-suppressing genes.
Another part of his study had the team insert elephants’ p53 genes directly into mouse cells. They found that those cells behaved just like they do when in the elephant and self-destructed when they were exposed to DNA-damaging drugs.
At this time, Dr. Schiffman’s team is looking for additional funding for research so they may explore possible treatments based on their elephant gene research. They are aware that human studies are years away, but at the same time, they “certainly think we’ve found something very intriguing,” Schiffman said.