Elephants have a strong defense system against cancer, and scientists from the University of Utah are starting to figure out why.
Typically, large mammals are believed to be of particularly high risk for developing the deadly disease. The idea is that since every cell in the body can potentially become cancerous, having more cells increases the risk of one developing cancer.
Based on this logic, since elephants have 100 times as many cells as humans, they should be 100 times more likely to develop cancer.
However, this is not the case, as statistics show that only 5% of elephants die from the disease compared to 25% of all humans.
In order to study this phenomenon, scientists from the University of Utah started examining the DNA of elephants. Cancer is the result of mutations in the DNA of a cell which causes rampant growth and quickly becomes destructive to the body.
Scientists determined that animals such as elephants are able to use certain genes to detect the damage that is occurring and either repair offending cells or kill them off.
Researcher Dr. Joshua Schiffman said, “By all logical reasoning, elephants should be developing a tremendous amount of cancer, and in fact, (they) should be extinct by now due to such a high risk for cancer. Nature has already figured out how to prevent cancer, it's up to us to learn how different animals tackle the problem so we can adapt those strategies to prevent cancer in people."
However, some scientists are arguing that the focus shouldn’t be on how to stop cancer, but rather discovering why humans maintain a high rate of developing the disease in the first place.
Cancer research scientist Professor Mel Greaves said, “In terms of adaptive mechanisms against cancer we have the same as a chimp, but we get a lot more cancer than a chimp. I think the answer is humans are completely unique as a species in having very rapid social evolution in a short period of time."
Professor Greaves also pointed to the unhealthy behaviors of humans, such as smoking, obesity and sunbathing.
Other experts mention the possibility of birthing cycles having an effect on cancer development. Elephants typically produce offspring at later ages than humans. Therefore, elephants need to live longer to reproduce. Humans do not need to reach old ages to bear children. The result is that evolutionary pressure for humans to create natural mechanisms for preventing cancer at old ages does not largely exist.
Regardless of the reason, there’s no denying the fact that cancer is a major problem in humans, and scientists will continue to pursue viable solutions to the disease.