Why elephants hardly ever get cancer

Elephants have extra copies of a gene that encodes a well-defined tumour suppressor, p53, a new study has found, which may explain why the animals rarely get cancer.

They also may have a more robust mechanism than other animals for killing damaged cells that are at risk for becoming cancerous.

The findings, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), could lead to new strategies for treating cancer in people researchers at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah and Arizona State University say.

Elephants have puzzled scientists for years. They have 100 times as many cells as people, so should be 100 times more likely to have a cell slip into a cancerous state and trigger the disease over their long life span of 50 to 70 years. 

And yet it’s believed that elephants get cancer less often, a theory confirmed in this study. 

Analysis of a large database of elephant deaths estimates a cancer mortality rate of less than 5% compared to 11% to 25% in humans.

“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,” says co-senior author Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric oncologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute.


You can find more information about the research here.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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