Navigate to News section

Study: Elephants May Hold a Genetic Mechanism Key to Cancer Resistance

Israeli scientists at Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology are joining forces with the University of Utah where new research provides insight into why elephants rarely get cancer. Could it help humans?

Tess Cutler
October 13, 2015

They can do math, paint canvases, and when I was in Thailand, I saw one play the harmonica. Which begs the question: could elephants get any cooler? New findings say yes, indeed. Apparently elephants may also hold the genetic key that could potentially help in the battle to cure to cancer, and Israeli and American researchers are joining forces to find out more.

Last week researchers from the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, after a collaboration with Primary Children’s Hospital and Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, along with Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, revealing some startling information about cancer resistance in elephants.

According to the report, less than 5% of elephants die from cancer; the cancer mortality rate among humans, however, ranges from 11 to 25%. Since elephants, the largest terrestial animals on this planet, have 100 times more cells in their bodies than humans one could presume that makes them 100 times more susceptible to cancerous cell mutations. But apparently that’s not the case. Pediatric oncologist at the University of Utah, Dr. Joshua Schiffman explained in the journal: “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.”

How then do elephants defy all odds? According to a University of Utah report, elephants have 40 copies of a gene “that encodes P53, a well-defined tumor suppressor,” while humans have only two.

Further, elephants may have a more robust mechanism for killing damaged cells that are at risk for becoming cancerous. In isolated elephant cells, this activity is doubled compared to healthy human cells, and five times that of cells from patients with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, who have only one working copy of p53 and more than a 90 percent lifetime cancer risk in children and adults. The results suggest extra p53 could explain elephants’ enhanced resistance to cancer.

And now, Israeli Professor Avi Schroeder and a team of super scientists from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa are jumping on board. Four months ago, Schiffman was making a presentation on Huntsman’s findings in Haifa and Schroeder was there. “As I was listening to his lecture I made a note to myself that I had to meet him,” Schroeder told Haaretz.

Schroeder and his team want to take Schiffman’s work to the next level, hoping to concoct a new anti-cancer drug. “The goal is to create a new treatment and a new treatment approach. The P53 is one of the most important mechanisms in cancer and it’s relevant to almost all types of cancer. We hope that we have here a harbinger of a new treatment,” Schroeder said.

Related: Facing Death

Tess Cutler is an intern at Tablet.