It seems logical that because elephants are so large and their bodies have so many more cells than smaller animals that they should get cancer more often, but they don't and scientists are trying to figure out why.
UPI reports that over 40 percent of Americans get cancer and about half of those die from it. When compared to humans, elephants have an extraordinarily low risk of getting contracting the disease. National Geographic explored why this happens in a research study on cancer in elephants, reported by CBS News. The study found that cancer was almost non-existent in elephants.
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This phenomenon of large-size animals, like elephants, having retracting cancer at a lower rate than smaller ones is called Peto’s Paradox. Scientists think that they have discovered the reason why. National Geographic reported that the scientists discovered elephants have many more P53 genes. These are responsible for suppressing cancerous tumors. Human beings only have a single copy, while elephants have 23.
Interestingly enough, P53 is also known as “zombie” gene because it is responsible for the process that regulates cellular death. When a cell in an elephant has damaged DNA, which normally would lead to cancer, it is killed by the effectiveness of the P53 gene process, which is able to recognize the danger, causing the bad cells to die off instead of being replicated.
This is the opposite of what occurs in other animals where mutated cells that have damaged DNA are usually allowed to grow and multiply. These damaged cells, when left unchecked, can go on to form cancerous tumors.
To prevent this, elephants have another beneficial genetic difference from humans. They have more of the genes that create a Leukemia Inhibitory Factor (LIF). The specific LIF6 gene in elephants blocks the formation of leukemia and other cancer cells. It is also responsible for increased fertility in elephants.
LIF6 kills cancer cells and makes more elephants that have this genetic characteristic. This helps the overall survival of the elephant species. Most mammals have only one copy of the this gene while elephants have up to 11. The combination of the process used by the P53 gene to recognize bad cells and the LIF6 gene that helps kill them is a powerful force that reduces cancer in elephants.
Scientists continue this research because the value of this knowledge, about what stops cancer cells, is enormous. These discoveries may eventually be used to help humans avoid cancer.