Why Elephants Rarely Get Cancer
December 9th, 2015 by Holly Cornish
(Plus an explanation for those age spots on your hands)
Almost every cell in your body runs the risk of becoming cancerous if its tiny little parts take a wrong turn and the cell goes rogue – ready to replicate itself endlessly, grow a tumor and threaten your life.
So if you want to keep from getting cancer, you have to insure that the delicate mechanisms within your cells don’t malfunction — and you have to maintain the mechanisms in your body that destroy cells when they DO malfunction.
And that’s where a new discovery about elephants helps us understand how the body fights off cancer.
What do elephants have to do with it? Keep reading. . .
World’s deadliest cancer…destroyed
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Elephants are relevant because of their size and their ability to shrug off cancer.
Theoretically, because almost all cells in an organism run a risk of someday becoming cancer cells, medical researchers have long believed that the bigger an animal is and the more cells it has, the more likely it is that one of those cells, somewhere, can malfunction and develop into cancer.
Which left them puzzled. If size increases cancer risk, how come elephants hardly ever develop cancer?
Well, it turns out that elephants possess an important anti-cancer advantage that we humans lack. Each of their cells includes more than three dozen copies of a “tumor suppressor” gene whose main purpose is to eliminate cells that threaten to turn cancerous.
We humans do have that same gene. But each of our cells usually only contains two copies of it. Elephants, on the other hand, carry around dozens of extra copies of this cancer-preventing gene. We can’t match that, but there are some things we can do to enhance the activity of our tumor suppressor genes.
Your DNA has built-in protection
A study at the Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah and Arizona State University, involving researchers from the Ringling Brothers Center for Elephant Conservation, shows that elephants not only have 38 copies of the p53 gene (which makes a protein called p53 that helps suppress tumors) but their cells exert twice as much anti-cancer chemical activity as do human cells.1
“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,” says researcher Joshua Schiffman, M.D., a pediatric oncologist at Huntsman.
Dr. Schiffman says that elephants have 100 times more cells than you or I, and it’s been thought that they should therefore be 100 times more vulnerable to cancer during their life expectancy of 50 to 70 years.
But they aren’t vulnerable to cancer. Only about five percent of elephants ever suffer cancer of any sort. In contrast, 11 to 25 percent of humans develop cancer during their lifetimes.
Checking white blood cells
During the Huntsman research, researchers examined white blood cells that were taken from elephants during their routine physical exams. In the lab, the scientists used chemicals to damage the cells’ DNA with the intent of making them cancerous.
But instead of beginning to grow in the uncontrollable way cancer grows, the abundance of p53 in these damaged cells sentenced them to death. They underwent apoptosis – sometimes called “cellular suicide.”
“It’s as if the elephants said, ‘It’s so important that we don’t get cancer, we’re going to kill this cell and start over fresh,'” Dr. Schiffman says. “If you kill the damaged cell, it’s gone, and it can’t turn into cancer. This may be a more effective approach to cancer prevention than trying to stop a mutated cell from dividing and not being able to completely repair itself.”
As part of the experiment, the researchers also exposed a collection of cells to radiation that causes cancer. Then they compared the responses of elephant cells, normal human cells and cells from people who are deficient in p53 (this occurs in folks who have what’s called Li-Fraumeni Syndrome).
People who inherit Li-Fraumeni Syndrome are not only restricted to a single copy of p53 per cell, they also run a 90 percent risk of developing cancer during their lifetime.
In the lab, after the scientists radiated the cells, they found that the elephant cells underwent apoptosis twice as often as the normal human cells and five times as often as cells from people with Li-Frumeni.
“By all logical reasoning, elephants should be developing a tremendous amount of cancer, and in fact, should be extinct by now due to such a high risk for cancer,” according to Dr. Schiffman. “We think that making more p53 is nature’s way of keeping this species alive.”
The P53 gene helps you tan
One of the functions of p53 is to lower our risk for skin cancer. The gene and the proteins it produces are essential for helping skin tan and protect itself from the harm that can be caused by the destructive power of the sun’s ultraviolet light.
A study at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute shows that when p53 stimulates a tan it helps fend off melanoma – the quickest-growing and most deadly form of skin cancer.2
“The number one risk factor for melanoma is an inability to tan; people who tan easily or have dark pigmentation are far less likely to develop the disease,” says researcher David E. Fisher, M.D., Ph.D., who now directs the Melanoma Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital. “This study suggests that p53, one of the best-known tumor-suppressor proteins in our body, has a powerful role in protecting us against sun damage in the skin.”
In their studies, these researchers also believe they’ve discovered the origin of the skin spots that older people develop.
The small dark spots, say the scientists, may be the work of p53. The spots form when a group of skin cells produce dark pigment stimulated by irritation or stress on the skin. The spots themselves are not a health risk, but they are unattractive.
“Our research offers a potential explanation of how this condition — known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or age spots — occurs,” says Dr. Fisher. “We know that it occurs as a result of stress, and p53 is a classic ‘stress’ protein, going into action when cells experience stress-related DNA damage. What we’ve learned about p53 suggests that it may trigger the hyperpigmentation process.”
You can help your P53 genes
Research on p53 has provided insight into how some cancer-preventing natural substances help the body stay cancer free.
A study at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, shows that resveratrol, the antioxidant natural chemical found in grapes, peanuts and berries, helps kill cancer cells by boosting the function of p53.3
While other studies have shown that resveratrol increases apoptosis – self-destruction of cancer cells – in some types of cancer but not in others, researchers didn’t know why cancers react differently to the natural chemical.
The Brazilians identified some types of cancer in which the cells are missing p53 or have only damaged or incomplete versions of it. Resveratrol was ineffective in treating these cancers. They think that if p53 can be put back into cancer cells where it is missing, resveratrol can then be used to attack the cancer.
“Our findings may have potential applications in cancer cell lines that are under p53 control,” says researcher Danielly Ferraz da Costa. “Also, the introduction of the p53 gene in p53-defective tumors, followed by resveratrol treatment, may represent a novel and promising therapeutic approach in our fight against cancer.”
The broccoli advantage
Studies of cruciferous vegetables – broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts – show that natural chemicals in these foods also help p53 function more effectively.4
An investigation at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University Medical Center shows that phenethyl isothiocyante (PEITC) extracted from cruciferous vegetables helps eliminate mutated p53 that promotes cancer and helps cells replace it with normal p53 that kills off cancer cells.
According to the researchers, the result is not only the restoration of properly functioning p53, but an increased sensitivity in the cancer cells that allows them to be killed directly by the vegetables’ PEITC. For more information about PEITC, check out Issue #223.
The researchers at both Georgetown and Rio hope that someday their studies on how natural substances work against cancer will allow doctors to use these chemicals to beat back tumors.
But in the meantime, you can still use that old, reliable cancer-fighter – your fork – to feed yourself the foods that boost your p53 genes and help prevent cancer in the first place.