Did you know that besides humans, animals also die of cancer at the same percentage as us? It is also believed that some animals are moving toward extinction because of this deadly illness. And then, there are those animals that never get cancer. One big example is elephants.
The reason behind why elephants are less likely to get cancer is due to additional copies of a gene encoding tumor protein suppressor, p53. A new study performed by the researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute at University of Utah Health Sciences, and researchers from the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, shows this phenomenal result. Also, the study conducted that elephants have built-in powerful system of killing cancerous cells.
Elephants dying out of cancer is 5% compared to 11 to 25% of humans dying out of cancer have baffled the scientists for many years. In order to solve this mystery, the scientists, along with the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, Primary Children’s Hospital, and Utah’s HogleZoo, have performed experiments for several years. On a conclusion, they have discovered that elephants have 38 additional modified copies of a gene that encodes p53, a compound that subdues tumor development. Comparatively, humans have only 2. To come up with a solid answer, the scientists compared the elephants genes with healthy human genes, and genes from a group of patients suffering from Li-Fraumeni Syndrome. The patients have a 90% chance of developing cancer in their lifetime, and have only 1 copy of p53. The lifespan of elephants are from 50 to 70 years, and they have 100 times more cells than us. This made the scientists wonder that among so many cells, at least one or two would trigger cancer. But they don’t.
These results have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
“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,” said co-senior author Joshua Schiffman, M.D., pediatric oncologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah School of Medicine , and Primary Children’s Hospital.
Schiffman and his team scoured through the African elephant genome, and uncovered 40 copies of genes that code for p53. This is a huge amount, given that humans have only 2 copies. What the team did next was they extracted white blood cells from the elephants during their routine check-ups, and subjected the cells to treatments that damage DNA. As a reply, the cells self-destructed, meaning, the cells died, and would be unable to turn into cancer.
“If you kill the damage cell, it’s gone, and it can’t turn into cancer. This maybe 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,” said Schiffman.
The team, then did another experiment. In order to see if more p53 can prevent cancer, they took cells from elephants (n=8), healthy humans (n=10), and Li-Fraumeni Syndrome patients (n=10), and exposed the cells to radiation. The response showed that elephant cells self-destructed at twice the rate of healthy humans, and more than five times the rate of Li-Fraumeni patients (14.6%, 7.2% and 2.7% respectively). These results supported the idea that more p53 can prevent against cancer. The scientists believe that too much p53 is nature’s way of protecting these majestic animals from cancer.
Of course, there will be further studies and researches to see if the same can be applied to humans. “If the elephants can hold the key to unlocking some of the mysteries of cancer, then we will see an increased awareness of the plight of elephants worldwide,” said Eric Peterson, elephant manager at Utah’s Hogle Zoo. “What a fantastic benefit: elephants and humans living longer, better lives.”