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.