A recent study conducted by researchers from the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah, found information of why elephants are resistant to cancer. Findings suggest that elephant cells respond twice as robustly to DNA damage by just eliminating pre-cancerous cells. The research was published in the journal JAMA.
Dr. Joshua D. Schiffman, a researcher at the HCI traveled to Utah’s Hogle Zoo and heard a zoo keeper saying that once a week the zoo draws blood from its elephants to keep track on their healthiness. Schiffman did not miss the opportunity and gathered other scientists in order to figure out why elephants hardly ever develop cancer.
“Evolution has had 55 million years to figure out how to prevent cancer in elephants, and now it’s our turn to try to figure out how to apply this to people.” Dr. Schiffman stated, as Time reported.
Schiffman came with the idea of the study after he heard about the ‘Peto’s paradox’, which is an observation that suggests that at the species level, the incidence of cancer does not appear to correlate with the number of cells in an organism.
For instance, the incidence of cancer in humans is much higher than the incidence of cancer in elephants and whales, even though both have many more cells than smaller species.
Testing elephant’s blood
Schiffman and the study co-authors obtained these samples of blood from African elephants from Utah’s Hogle Zoo. They were also able to obtain blood samples from Asian elephants with the help of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus.
Scientists found that elephant’s cells are composed of 40 copies of a major cancer-resistant gene that is called ‘P53’. Surprisingly, humans only contain two, one from each parent. The P53 gene helps damaged cells to repair themselves or self-destruct when exposed to cancer-causing substances, according to NBC News.
“These elephant cells are exquisitely sensitive to any type of DNA damage. It is as if these elephant cells are on a high alert for any type of mutation, and as soon as they see it, they will get rid of that cell, so that it won’t go on to develop cancer,” sayd Schiffman.
Moreover, these cells self-destructed at twice the rate of healthy human cells and even five times more when compared to cancer patients. The cells that do not self-repair or self-destruct when exposed to radionuclide become prone to developing cancer.
A possible treatment for humans
Despite the fact that scientists are impatiently seeking for a future cancer treatment in humans, the findings provided in the study are not proof that those extra P53 genes make elephants cancer-resistant. However, if a future study validates this theory, researchers would be able to develop a possible drug for humans that would simulate the effect from the P53 genes.