OXFORD, United Kingdom — Elephants could hold the key to curing cancer, new research reveals. Researchers from the University of Oxford say these giant mammals carry an army of tumor-fighting proteins that destroy mutated cells.
The discovery explains why Earth’s largest land animals are over five times less likely to develop the disease than humans. Harnessing the genes could lead to a “one-size-fits-all” therapy for one of the world’s deadliest diseases.
“This intricate and intriguing study demonstrates how much more there is to elephants than impressive size and how important it is that we not only conserve but also study these signature animals in minute detail. After all, their genetics and physiology are all driven by evolutionary history as well as today’s ecology, diet and behavior,” says study co-author Professor Fritz Vollrath in a university release.
Elephants exhibit high resistance to cancer, with mortality rates of less than five percent, compared to up to 25 percent among people. The phenomenon has puzzled biologists for decades, since larger creatures should be at greater risk.
Elephants carry more genome ‘guardians’
Cells keep dividing throughout an organism’s life, each carrying the risk of producing a tumor. However, elephants inherit 40 versions of a gene called p53, 20 from each parent. Scientists call them the “guardian of the genome.” They hunt down and kill cells with faulty DNA. All other mammals only have two versions of the gene.
Biochemical analysis and computer simulations also showed the 40 versions all have slight structural differences. This provides a much wider range of anti-cancer activity than our paltry two genes have — one from each parent.
“This is an exciting development for our understanding of how p53 contributes to preventing cancer development,” says co-author Professor Robin Fåhraeus from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research.
“In humans, the same p53 protein is responsible for deciding if cells should stop proliferating or go into apoptosis but how p53 makes this decision has been difficult to elucidate. The existence of several p53 isoforms in elephants with different capacities to interact with MDM2 offers an exciting new approach to shed new light on p53’s tumor suppressor activity.”
The findings, published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, also provide new insight into how the body activates p53 proteins.
The study opens the door to developing medications that increase p53’s sensitivity and response against cancer causing environments.
“Conceptually, the accumulation of structurally modified p53 pools, collectively or synergistically co-regulating the responses to diverse stresses in the cell, establishes an alternative mechanistic model of cell regulation of high potential significance to biomedical applications,” concludes Dr. Konstantinos Karakostis from the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Elephants, prized for their ivory tusks, are critically endangered after being driven to the brink of extinction by poachers. Populations have experienced significant declines over the last century. There are now only about 400,000 left in Africa, and an estimated 30,000 in Asia. A century ago, they were common across both continents. Elephants also face add threats from habitat loss and global warming.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.