Elephants’ cancer-protection secret may be in the genes

The pachyderms’ low disease rates linked to high dose of tumor blockers

a herd of elephants

LONG LIVING Elephants’ long life spans may stem from an abundance of cancer-fighting genes.

Vaughan Leiberum/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Elephants’ genetic instruction books include a hefty chapter on fighting cancer.

The massive mammals have about 20 copies of TP53, a gene that codes for a potent tumor-blocking protein, researchers analyzing elephant DNA report October 8 in JAMA. Humans have just one copy of TP53.

An extra dose (or 19) of the anticancer gene may explain why elephants have unusually low cancer rates, say Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric oncologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and colleagues.

Schiffman’s team pored over 14 years of animal autopsy data from the San Diego Zoo, and a separate database that included detailed info on 644 elephant deaths. Based on those data, the team calculated that just 4.8 percent of elephants die of cancer. For humans, that number is anywhere from 11 to 25 percent.

Elephants’ extra genes could help keep defective cells from morphing into tumors, the researchers suggest.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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