Why Elephants Rarely Get Cancer

It’s all in the genes

Scientists have unraveled the mystery of why elephants seldom get cancer.

Elephants have far more cells than humans, which would presumably place them at a higher risk if cancer. And yet, these giant animals rarely get the disease.

Researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute found that elephants have 38 modified copies of a gene that encodes p53, a compound that suppresses tumors. In contrast, humans have just two copies of this gene.

"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," said Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a paediatric oncologist at the Institute.

Furthermore, it appears elephants may have a more robust mechanism for killing damaged cells that are at risk of becoming cancerous.

It’s hoped that the findings could one day lead to new therapies for fighting cancer in humans.

(Image: Dr. Joshua Schiffman, University of Utah Health Sciences)

Elephants are the largest land animals in the world. These powerful and intelligent mammals rely heavily on their enormous trunks for smelling, breathing, communicating, drinking and picking things up. An elephant’s trunk has around 100,000 different muscles.

The elephant diet is predominantly roots, grass, fruit, and bark, with a fully grown elephant eating more than 100 kilograms of food every day.

Elephant pregnancies last for a jaw-dropping 22 months with the calf weighing in at close to 100 kilograms at birth.

Their ivory tusks are used to dig for food and water, strip bark from trees and battle each other. The illegal ivory trade has caused the deaths of many elephants. Asian elephants are currently listed as endangered while African elephants are classified as threatened.

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