A recent study suggests lower elephant cancer rates may help eradicate the disease. This theory has been launched by scientists at Arizona State University and the Huntsman Cancer Institute of the University of Utah.
The discovery was made after researchers carefully examined the health condition of 644 elephants from worldwide reservations.
Experts conducted their research for several years, by reviewing data provided by Utah’s Hogle Zoo and Ringling Bros Center for Elephant Conservation. The results were published on Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
644 elephant deaths were analyzed, and it was established that less than 5% of the mammals had died due to a malignant tumor. In contrast, human cancer mortality rates vary between 11% and 25%.
The fact that elephants are so resilient when it comes to this disease is quite a startling discovery, since the animals have approximately 100 times more cells than humans do.
Theoretically, this should put them at a much higher risk of suffering cell mutations resulting in malignant tumors. In fact, according to experts, the species should actually be extinct by now, as a result of this predisposition.
In order to explain their preliminary findings, experts analyzed the elephant genome, and identified 40 p53 genes. 38 of these were alleles (variant forms of a gene), which had appeared throughout the mammals’ evolution over 55 million years.
In a lab experiment conducted on white blood cells from elephants, it was proven that proteins encoded by the p53 gene help monitor cellular damage. In addition, the protein rapidly kills mutated cells before they get to divide, thus keeping cancer at bay.
By comparison, humans generally possess just 2 such copies of p53 genes, so their cancer-fighting ability is greatly diminished.
Moreover, elephants are much more effective in combating the disease once it develops inside their bodies. Their cells are twice more active than human cells when it comes to removing damaged cells that could turn cancerous.
In addition, their genes are 5 times more potent than those encountered among Li-Fraumeni Syndrome patients. Individuals affected by this rare hereditary disorder have just one retrogene containing p53. As a result, they have a 50% risk of developing cancer by the age of 30, and a lifetime cancer predisposition surpassing 90%.
“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 these strategies to prevent cancer in people”, explained study co-author Joshua Schiffman, pediatric oncologist at Hunstman Cancer Institute.
It remains to be seen how these promising findings will be put into practice by scientists, as further research is conducted. For now, lab experiments have shown that additional amounts of p53 may have the disadvantage of speeding up the aging process.
Nevertheless, the study gives hope that a new drug may one day replicate the beneficial effects of p53 and succeed in eradicating cancer, once and for all.
Image Source: Pixabay