Elephants are known for many things. They are the largest living land animals. They have exceptional memories. And they are even noted for an uncanny ability to avoid cancer.
New research reveals secrets of that health claim to fame, and potentially sets the stage for another distinction these pachyderms may one day claim: helping people avoid cancer.
It all starts with a gene called p53, which researchers from the University of Chicago call a “master tumor suppressor.” P53 causes apoptosis, or cell death, when it detects unrepaired damage to DNA. Humans have one copy of this helpful gene. Elephants, on the other hand, or very large foot, have a whopping 20 copies. Considering an elephant’s size compared with a human’s, this makes sense.
Elephants have many more cells than people do, and thus more opportunities for DNA copying to go awry. Such duplication occurs when a cell is replicating itself to create a new generation.
Once in a while, the resulting DNA contains errors. This is an opportunity for cancer to develop. Given the number of p53 genes elephants have, it’s obvious they are better equipped than humans to stop such problems before they go beyond a single cell.
The Chicago researchers have found another elephant advantage: A gene called leukemia inhibitory factor 6, once observed only as a dormant bystander, has recently been seen active in the animals’ genome. P53 apparently activates this gene, which also induces death in cells with defunct DNA.
More research is needed to ascertain how all this might help humans. But scientists will definitely be studying the elephant and its powerful anticancer tools. Maybe one day we will hail elephants, along with dogs, as our best friend!