Ele­phants pack some can­cer-fight­ing se­crets

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS ASIDES & INSIDES -

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.

Com­pared with just one copy in hu­mans, ele­phants’ cells con­tain 20 copies of a ma­jor can­cer-sup­press­ing gene, two teams of sci­en­tists re­port.

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 at the Univer­sity of Utah who led one of the teams, be­gan his re­search af­ter hear­ing a lecture a few years ago about Peto’s para­dox—that large an­i­mals have com­par­a­tively lower can­cer rates than smaller species.

The lec­turer men­tioned that ele­phants seemed to have ex­tra copies of the p53 gene. Schiffman’s pa­tients in­clude chil­dren with in­com­plete p53 genes be­cause of a con­di­tion called Li-Frau­meni syn­drome, which greatly in­creases their chances of de­vel­op­ing can­cer.

His team—as well as a sec­ond group of sci­en­tists—pinned down the size of the ele­phants’ sur­plus genes—20 copies.

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 self­de­struct when ex­posed to car­cino­gens be­come prone to de­vel­op­ing can­cer. The sci­en­tists’ work was pub­lished in JAMA.

While the re­search won’t lead to any im­me­di­ate treat­ment for hu­mans, progress against can­cer can come “from un­ex­pected di­rec­tions,” said Dr. Ted Gansler of the Amer­i­can Can­cer So­ci­ety.

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