Cancer is much less common in elephants than in humans, even though the big beasts' bodies have many more cells. That's a paradox known among scientists, and now researchers think they may have an explanation that might someday lead to new ways to protect people from cancer. Compared with just one copy in humans, elephants' cells contain 20 copies of a major cancer-suppressing gene. The gene helps damaged cells repair themselves or self-destruct when exposed to cancer-causing substances. The findings aren't proof that those extra p53 genes make elephants cancer-resistant, but if future research confirms it, scientists could try to develop drugs for humans that would mimic the effect.
Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric cancer specialist, led one of two research teams that made the finding. His patients include children with incomplete p53 genes because of a condition called Li-Fraumeni syndrome, which greatly increases their chances of developing cancer. So Schiffman sought to find clues from the blood of eight elephants. Schiffman and his colleagues compared how elephant cells reacted to radiation, compared with cells from 10 healthy humans and 10 patients with Li-Fraumeni syndrome. The elephant cells self-destructed at twice the rate of healthy human cells and more than five times the rate of cells from patients with the syndrome. Cells that don't self-repair or self-destruct when exposed to carcinogens become prone to developing cancer. Schiffman's team is seeking funding for research into possible treatments based on the elephant research. (Read more elephants stories.)