Elephants rarely get cancer, which is odd because of their size and the long life they live (50 to 70 years).
Let me explain. The human body is made up of 37.2 trillion cells. Elephants, because of their size, have one thousand times more cells than us. When cells divide, there’s a great opportunity that a mutation will occur . . . it’s estimated that humans produce trillions of mutations every day so you can only imagine the cell mutations in elephants.
The problem with mutated cells is that they’re not all benign and the ones that are not can create life threatening diseases, like cancer. So why would an elephant have less than 5% occurrence of cancer with humans experiencing cancer rates between 11% to 25%?
The newest scientific study reveals results reveal elephants have extra copies of a gene-encoding tumor suppressor identified as p53. This gene-encoding suppressor helps minimize the changes of cell division mutations becoming malignant. (In addition, elephants may have a more robust mechanism for killing damaged cells.)
Humans only have one tumor suppressor. It’s theorized that the extra p53’s explain why the elephant’s genome is better equipped to resist cancer than 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, M.D., pediatric oncologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah School of Medicine, and Primary Children’s Hospital.
Schiffman’s team collaborated with Utah’s Hogle Zoo and Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation to test whether the extra gene copies may protect elephants from cancer. They extracted white blood cells from blood drawn from the animals during routine wellness checks and subjected the cells to treatments that damage DNA, a cancer trigger. In response, the cells reacted to damage with a characteristic p53-mediated response: they committed suicide.
“It’s as if the elephants said, ‘It’s so important that we don’t get cancer, we’re going to kill this cell and start over fresh,'” says Schiffman. “If you kill the damaged cell, it’s gone, and it can’t turn into cancer. This may be 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.”