SALT LAKE CITY. (KFSN) --Researchers have wondered for years why elephants rarely get cancer. A researcher at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah, working with the local zoo and Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus found the answer that could lead to better treatment and maybe even prevention of the disease in humans.
Eric Peterson has cared for Hogle Zoo elephants for 22 years. He didn't flinch when Josh Schiffman, MD, Professor of Pediatrics and Investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, University of Utah asked for samples of their blood.
Peterson told Ivanhoe, "I'm used to actually getting obscure questions, and that was a very obscure question."
Dr. Schiffman wanted to know why humans have a 50 percent chance to get cancer in their lifetimes, but elephants have less than five percent...especially because they're 100 times bigger and have 100 times more cells that could get sick. The answer is P53...a tumor-suppressing gene. We only have two.
Dr. Schiffman told Ivanhoe, "We learned that elephants, instead of having two copies of this P53 gene, have evolved to have 40 copies of this P53 gene. We think it's these extra copies that may be contributing to the protection from developing cancer."
Dr. Schiffman was surprised to learn that P53 isn't just repairing damaged cells. It's killing them.
"Instead of trying to stop and fix it and maybe not fix it all the way, let's just kill the cells. They're elephants, there are plenty more where that came from, and that way, they'll be perfectly safe from ever getting cancer," he explained.
Now, the Schiffman team is developing a drug that mimics the work of P53, hoping it will cure and maybe prevent cancer in people.
Dr. Schiffman hopes to have something in clinical trials in three to five years. Schiffman says the Ringling Brothers Circus and its owner, Feld Entertainment, have helped tremendously in this research. Their elephants (and their blood) were part of the study. They donated $250,000 to the research project and have pledged $500,000 more.