Utahns Offer Possible Answer to Question: Why Do Elephants Rarely Get Cancer?

Elephants at Utah's Hogle Zoo. Photo: Gephardt Daily / Kurt Walter

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – October 8, 2015 (Gephardt Daily) – A team of researchers, many of them from Utah, may have partially solved a mystery that has puzzled scientists for decades. On Thursday, the scientists became one of the first teams to publish an answer to the question: Why do elephants rarely get cancer?

Dr. Joshua D. Schiffman, a pediatric oncologist at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, co-authored a report in Thursday’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggesting that elephants have developed a large set of proteins capable of killing off damaged cancer cells.

Elephants at Utah's Hogle Zoo
Elephants at Utah’s Hogle Zoo

Schiffman and his colleagues teamed up with Utah’s Hogle Zoo and researchers from the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation to study elephants’ death rate from cancer. Zoo records on the deaths of 644 elephants were studied and researchers determined that less than 5 percent of the animals died from cancer.  By comparison, the human death rate from cancer is 11 to 25 percent.

The next step for scientists involved investigation of a gene called p53 which is crucial in preventing cancer. The p53 gene contains a protein capable of monitoring cells for DNA damage, triggering the cells to repair the genes, stopping the process of further cell division, and at times even causing the cells to commit suicide.

Humans have only one pair of p53 genes compared to the 20 pairs scientists identified in elephants.

To test elephants’ cancer fighting capabilities, Schiffman and his colleagues bombarded elephant cells with radiation and DNA-damaging chemicals.  What they discovered was “a unique and very effective way to block cancer, ” according to Schiffman. The elephant cells simply committed suicide. “It’s almost as if they said, ‘We’re elephants — we’ve got plenty more cells where those came from,” Dr. Schiffman said.

Not everyone is convinced the extra p53 genes are responsible for the elephants ability to fight off cancer. Those scientists want further studies. However, Dr. Schiffman is investigating how to turn the findings from this recent study into cancer treatments for humans. Schiffman also wants to study other big animals and those who live to a ripe old age without getting cancer.


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