We all know that an elephant never forgets but recent research shows that they almost never get cancer either. Only 4.8% of elephant deaths are cancer-related whereas the numbers are between 11% and 25% for humans. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reveals why.
The secret is in the gene called TP53. Cancer researchers say this gene creates a protein that suppresses tumors and often refer to it as the “guardian of the genome.” Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric oncologist at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute and an author of the study explains, “When there is DNA damage, it rushes onto the scene and stops your cells from dividing so the DNA can be repaired.” It also aids in cell death to get rid of bad cells. Humans have just one copy of TP53. On the other hand, African elephants have 20 copies of this gene.
For the study, researchers collected white blood cells from both elephants and humans and exposed the cells to radiation that caused damage to their DNA. The elephant cells died at a much higher rate than the human cells. The damaged cells destroyed themselves to keep from passing on potentially harmful mutations.
Schiffman and team would like to take what they have learned from this study and use it to further cancer research. Possibilities include creating a drug that mimics the actions of the TP53 or inserting more of the gene in precancerous cells.
Source: Abegglen L, Caulin A, Chan A, et al. Potential mechanisms for cancer resistance in elephants and comparative cellular response to DNA damage in humans. JAMA, 2015; 314 (17): 185-1860.