Besides all their other extraordinary abilities--their powerful memories, their human-like emotions and devotion to their families, their sense of humor--scientists have uncovered yet another remarkable fact about these long-living wild animals: They rarely die of cancer. And it could lead to better ways to prevent the disease in humans.
Elephants have 20 pairs of a cancer-fighting gene called p53; humans have only two. The gene helps cells fight off mutations that can cause tumors in many ways, including by destroying the cancerous cells. This was true even when researchers subjected elephant cells to cancer-causing agents--like radiation and chemicals. The damaged cells just self-destructed.
Scientists know that p53 is an important gene in the fight against cancer. Babies who are born without the gene have a 90 percent chance of getting cancer in their lifetimes. What they don't know is whether adding extra copies of the gene to the human body--in the form of drugs--would cause people's cancerous cells to self-destruct as well.
But they do know that studying elephants--and other animals that have long lifespans like tortoises, parrots, and whales--could help in the fight against cancer. As one of the researchers told the New York Times: “The war on cancer was going on long before there were humans. So let’s look at nature’s strategies.”
via NBCNews.com and The New York Times