Scientists discover why elephants rarely get cancer

2015-10-08 19:38


Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Miami - Despite their big size, elephants rarely get cancer, and scientists said on Thursday they have discovered the secret to the creatures' special protection. It's in the genes.

Elephants have 38 additional modified copies of a gene that encodes p53, a compound that suppresses tumour formation.

Humans, on the other hand, have only two, according to the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

This means that as elephants evolved, their bodies made many extra copies of a gene that prevents tumours from forming.

Elephants have been considered an enigma for years because they have far more cells than people, which would presumably place them at higher risk of cancer over their lifespans which can last 50-70 years.

And yet, the analysis of a large database of elephant deaths showed that less than 5% of elephants die of cancer, compared to 11 to 25% in people.

"By all logical reasoning, elephants should be developing a tremendous amount of cancer, and in fact, should be extinct by now due to such a high risk for cancer," said co-senior author Joshua Schiffman, paediatric oncologist at Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah School of Medicine.

"We think that making more p53 is nature's way of keeping this species alive."

Elephants also come naturally equipped with a more aggressive internal mechanism for killing damaged cells that are at risk for becoming cancerous, researchers said.

"In isolated elephant cells, this activity is doubled compared to healthy human cells," said the study, which was co-authored by experts from Arizona State University and the Ringling Bros Center for Elephant Conservation.

Researchers hope that their findings could one day lead to new cancer-fighting therapies in people.

But that day could be far off, according to Mel Greaves, director of the Centre for Evolution and Cancer at The Institute of Cancer Research, London.

"The new research provides a plausible answer to one of the most celebrated riddles in evolutionary biology - why some big animals with lots of cells still manage to have quite low rates of cancer," said Greaves, who was not involved in the study.

"It is not immediately clear what lessons there are from this elephant tale for risk of cancer in humans. The main impact of this remarkable story is to bring into focus the question of why we are so uniquely predisposed to cancer for our size and lifespan - and what we can do to change this."

Read more on:    conservation

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.