Scientists Have Discovered Why Elephants Rarely Get Cancer

Two-month-old baby elephant Anjuli stands among family members Sept. 14, 2015, at the Tierpark Hagenbeck zoo in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo: CHRISTIAN CHARISIUS, AFP/Getty Images)
Two-month-old baby elephant Anjuli stands among family members Sept. 14, 2015, at the Tierpark Hagenbeck zoo in Hamburg, Germany.
(Photo: CHRISTIAN CHARISIUS, AFP/Getty Images)

According to everything we know about cancer, elephants should be hit hard by the disease.

Cancer is a disease of aging, and elephants can live up to 70 years. Over the course of a life that long, elephants grow a lot — burgeoning from 200-pound babies to 12,000-pound giants. All that growth involves cell division, a process that provides opportunities for potentially lethal genetic mistakes.

Yet cancer is relatively rare in elephants. Less than 5% of elephant deaths in captivity are related to cancer.

A new study suggests a possible reason: Elephants have 20 times as many copies of a key cancer-fighting gene as humans.

Humans typically have just two copies of a tumor-blocking gene called TP53, inheriting one from their mother and one from their father, said Joshua Schiffman, co-author of the study published Thursday in JAMA.

In contrast, elephants have 40 copies, said Schiffman, a pediatric oncologist at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah.

TP53 plays a vital role in preventing cancer, said Schiffman, who describes it as the “guardian of the genome,” scanning cells for genetic mistakes and destroying ones that can’t be fixed.

Scientist Robert Weinberg, whose lab discovered the first tumor suppressor gene, said the study provides a clue to an evolutionary puzzle.

“Every time a cell divides is a potential disaster,” said Weinberg, a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., who wasn’t involved in the new study. “As we evolved from small, short-lived animals into larger, long-lived animals, there has been the co-evolution of anti-cancer mechanisms in our tissue, so we don’t have an ever-increasing risk of cancer as we get older.”

Elephants aren’t the only large animals to have evolved ways to defeat cancer.

Bowhead whales are even larger and live longer than elephants, surviving up to 200 years.

Cancer death rates vary widely by species, the study says, ranging from 1% in the rock hyrax, a small African mammal related to elephants, to 8% of deaths in African wild dogs and more than 20% of deaths in cheetahs.

Cancer causes 11% to 25% of deaths in humans; many of those deaths due to lifestyle issues such as smoking, the study said.

One species  hit particularly hard by cancer in recent years is the Tasmanian devil, a species at risk of becoming extinct over the next decade because of lethal cancers spread by a parasite.

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SOURCE: USA Today – Liz Szabo