Researchers Look To Elephants In Fight Against Cancer

Scientists recently revealed that elephants have developed a means to naturally battle cancer.

How will elephants help fight against cancer? – The theory

The thinking is quite simple, the more cells you have the more likely it is for those cells to go rogue and become cancerous. Elephants have about 100 times as many cells as a grown human and by the earlier thinking that would make elephants 100 times more likely to develop cancer. However, this is not the case. A recent analysis, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week, shows that while nearly 25% of humans die from cancer only about 5% of elephants do.

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The team at the University of Utah said “nature has already figured out how to prevent cancer,” and hope to use these findings to find treatments for humans.

Before getting into the elephant’s DNA, it should be noted that humans certainly do themselves no favors with sunbathing, smoking and obesity among other behaviors that increase cancer risk. While elephants certainly spend a lot of time in the sun as opposed to on a couch playing video games, they do have pretty thick skin. And while I’ve seen a chain-smoking Indonesian baby, I’ve never seen an elephant smoke.

It’s in the genes

Cancer is caused by genetic mutations in DNA but elephants and other animals have a set of alarms if you will that lead the animals to repair or kill these cells before they do too much damage. One of these “alarms” is TP53 and while humans have a single TP53 gene, elephants are blessed with 20.

Dr Joshua Schiffman, one of the researchers on the study, recently said, “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.

“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.”

Menopause might also be responsible

“Success” in an evolutionary sense is based on the number of offspring produced. Women go through menopause and the ability to reproduce with their eggs. Elephants are most re-productively “successful” in the later stages of life. As a consequence, elephants have more pressure to fight cancer until the end.

“Humans have engineered socially extended lifespans way beyond reproductive senescence – you can’t find another species like that,” says Prof Mel Greaves, from the Institute of Cancer Research in London.