what do we do with what elephants taught us about preventing cancers?

We finally know why elephants are more resistant to cancers than humans. Can we use the same strategy they do?


When we think of ancient biological killers, we typically think of a Black Plague or a smallpox, an often recurring disease that wipes out millions of people and has been recorded since humanity started recording things. The plague killed more than a third of all Europeans in outbreaks from the fall of Rome while smallpox killed well over a billion people over the last 10,000 years. What rarely gets brought up in this pantheon of ancient killers, however, is cancer. It’s been with us a very long time, found in Egyptian mummies over 4,000 years old and named by Greek doctors puzzled by patients who died of “crab-like growths” as they were described, from which we get the disease’s name. But cancer doesn’t just affect us. It kills all living things. Even dinosaurs got tumors because cancer isn’t one disease but abnormal cell growth that is often fatal. If you’re a complex multicellular organism, chances are that there’s a cancer you can develop in time.

One of the most common alt med tropes employed to convince you to buy some new snake oil preaches that frequent cancer diagnoses are a result of our world becoming too polluted and a toxic cocktail of Cthulhu-knows-what circulating through your tissues is to blame. In reality, the reason why so many people get cancers today is because humans are living longer than ever, and are armed with the technology and knowledge to catch more varieties of it earlier, allowing them to subdue it and extend their lifespans even further. In fact, someone I personally know is a survivor of three cancer diagnoses, each a different type, and each was cured with outpatient surgeries. Just a few decades ago, this person would’ve been diagnosed too late and die swiftly even after surgery and chemotherapy, and it’s very likely that with age, there will be yet another cancer diagnosis because cancer is degenerative. The longer you live and the more cells are in your body, the more chances there are for a tumor to spawn after a botched cell division.

But it seems that no one told that to our pachyderm friends, who, despite being large and with fairly long lifespans, have cancer mortality rates half to a fifth of ours. How? Is their blood full of chemo drugs? Not exactly. Their secret weapon against cancers is their genome. Instead of a single copy of the gene encoding the protein p53 like we do, they have 38 in 20 versions. Since this is a protein used to suppress tumor growth, it’s critically important for fighting cancer during its first and most vulnerable stage. More versions of it means better ability to recognize growths that could turn cancerous and a chance to destroy all affected cells earlier. Elephant cells prune such mutations so aggressively, it’s difficult for a new tumor to take hold and this results in their much lower susceptibility to the disease. Given that we’re currently experimenting with medical gene therapy, a hypothetical pop sci afficionado might wonder, could we engineer our very own versions of p53 encoding genes to create a similar resistance to cancers and deal our decisive blow to nature’s murderous defect that’s plagued us since the dawn of complex life?

Sadly, probably not. These p53 variants evolved in elephants against types of tumors that often affect them and which went through millions of years of trial and error in pachyderms, not in us, which means that whether our own gambit to follow this strategy would be successful is unclear at best. Instead, humans could more easily adopt the biochemical strategy employed by naked mole rats, which uses p53 alongside several other mechanisms, including a special sugar, that simply prevent cells from clumping together, breaking up cancerous tumors as a side-effect. It’s a more viable method of combating earliest stage cancers and wouldn’t require inserting some dozen new genes into our DNA, a cocktail of drugs could change how existing genes work. We should continue to study the elephants’ genome to see if we can actually figure out a way to be more proactive with our own evolution to help resist cancer, but for now, we need to take what certainly is a very neat little tidbit of information and keep in mind that anyone in the media who tells us that we could just edit our genes to be more like a pachyderm’s — which we all know will happen sooner rather than later nowadays — is using coming book science for attention…

# health // biology / cancer / disease / evolution

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