Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world today. Researchers are constantly speculating about what causes it. A recent study showed that taller people might have a higher cancer risk, because they have more cells in their body. But a new study shows that elephants, which are huge, have an extremely low cancer rate even though they have way more cells than humans.
The New York Times reports on the low cancer rate in elephants.
Why do elephants have low cancer rates?
How could this information help humans?
“A number of scientists have speculated that large, long-lived animals must evolve extra cancer-fighting weapons; and if that’s true, they reason, then the biggest, longest-lived animals should have an especially big arsenal,” according to The New York Times.
Scientists report that humans only have one copy of a cancer suppressing gene whereas elephants have twenty copies of this gene. How does the gene work? It helps damaged cells repair themselves or self destruct when they have any exposure to substances that cause cancer.
Researchers are saying that if research confirms that these extra genes make all the difference then they can create drugs that will mimic the effect of these.
What research did the scientists do to come to these conclusions?
The Times explains, “To understand the elephants’ defenses, the scientists investigated a gene that is crucial for preventing cancer, called p53. The protein encoded by the gene monitors cells for damage to the DNA they contain.” The researchers found that it triggers the cells to repair the genes, stops cells from dividing further or it causes the cells to commit suicide.
How was the research conducted?
Experts wanted to see whether these extra copies of p53 make a difference in fighting cancer. They decided to conduct experiments on elephant cells. Dr. Schiffman (who led one of the studies) and his team bombarded elephant cells with radiation and DNA-damaging chemicals, while Dr. Lynch’s group used chemicals and ultraviolet rays.
Researchers found the same result in every case- the elephant cells responded in the same way; rather than trying to repair the damage, they simply committed suicide. Dr. Schiffman and many others saw this response as extremely rare.
Dr. Schiffman is now looking into how to translate the new results on elephants into cancer treatments for people. He plans to study other big and long-lived animals as well. Elephants are currently the only animals that have this amazing cancer fighting ability. Dr. Schiffman said, “The war on cancer was going on long before there were humans so let’s look at nature’s strategies.”