Why elephants rarely get cancer (and how that can help us)
An international team of scientists, with help from the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, has just made a fascinating discovery.
Elephants can live for up to 70 years, and because they are so large, they possess 100 times more cells than a human. In theory, that should make them more susceptible to developing cancer. But in fact, the opposite is true: the death rate for elephants due to cancer is less than 5%, while the cancer mortality rate for humans can be up to 25%.
In a new study, researchers at the University of Utah revealed that the reason elephants rarely get cancer is a special mechanism in their cells that suppresses the disease. Their study was published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Based on these findings, a follow-up study is being conducted by Utah and their colleagues at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
The original study was led by Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University at Utah. He found that elephants have 40 copies of a gene that acts as a tumor suppressor called p53; humans only have two. When white blood cells drawn from elephants were damaged, those with p53 self-destructed, suggesting that cancer is rare in elephants because of the additional p53.
“Now that we have learned about elephant p53 genes and their potential role in cancer prevention in elephants, we are working with collaborators on the next phase of our research to translate these findings into humans,” Schiffman told From the Grapevine.
Earlier this year, Schiffman visited Israel for a pediatric oncology conference, during which he met Avi Schroeder, a chemical engineer at Technion. The two researchers forged a relationship that resulted in the follow-up study to develop innovative cancer treatments. Schroeder, who completed his post-doctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was already working to find ways to use nanotechnology to deliver targeted drugs to human cells affected by cancer.
The follow-up work could include discovery of a drug that mimics the effects of the extra p53 in elephants, or even a new way to use genomic approaches to deliver elephant p53 to human cancer cells.
“Together, we will study the best way to move our findings into the therapeutic space to benefit patients,” Schiffman said.
The Israeli lab focuses on the study of proteins and drug delivery, while the lab in Utah specializes in functional molecular biology and cancer. The two groups are working closely together to exchange laboratory data and share new discoveries. Students and laboratory personnel are also expected to travel between Israel and Utah on international exchange programs.
“We have not yet discovered the cure to cancer, but with enough support and awareness, we are hopeful that our team science could lead to a new drug for humans in the next five to 10 years,” Schiffman said.
Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, is working with Prof. Avi Schroeder of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to develop new strategies for treating cancer in humans. (Photo: University of Utah Health Sciences)
Shiffman’s work was made possible with help from Primary Children's Hospital and Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, as well as the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, which offered blood samples from their herd of Asian elephants, the largest in North America.
Now the Feld Family, the owners of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, has pledged more than $1 million to help support this continued cancer research through a new Ringling Bros. Children’s Fund.
“Evolution had 55 million years to learn how to prevent cancer in elephants, and now it is our turn to learn from nature how to apply this to people,” Schiffman said.
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