Can elephants give us insights into cancer prevention?

Elephant

Experts have long been baffled by the fact that elephants rarely develop cancer. While humans have an 11 to 25 percent cancer mortality rate, the rate for elephants is less than 5 percent, according to researchers at the University of Utah.

Thanks to new research, the mystery might be slowly unraveling.

It appears that genetics has a lot to do with it—more specifically, modified copies of a gene that encodes a tumor suppressor known as p53. It turns out that elephants have an additional 38. Humans? We have just two.

“Nature has already figured out how to prevent cancer,” co-senior author Joshua Schiffman, M.D., a pediatric oncologist, said in a University of Utah press release. “It’s up to us to learn how different animals tackle the problem so we can adapt those strategies to prevent cancer in people.”

To see if these extra gene copies indeed offer cancer protection, Schiffman and his team exposed elephant white blood cells to circumstances that induce DNA damage. What they found was that the damaged cells actually killed themselves off.

“We think that making more p53 is nature’s way of keeping this species alive,” Schiffman said in the press release.

Schiffman’s hypothesis is especially timely as October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. With cancer at the forefront of so many research efforts, all eyes are on prevention.

New research out of the University of Arizona is examining the potential preventative benefits of a natural compound called reservatrol. Found in both red wine and peanuts, it has actually been found to stave off cancer development. Its safety and effectiveness have become areas of interest among UA researchers.

Other investigators out of UC San Francisco are exploring the powerful role online advertising may play in cancer prevention. A recent study suggested that online ads based on Google search terms (like “tanning beds,” for example) might be an effective way of getting the word out.

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