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 is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.