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Why Elephants Don’t Get Cancer


Why Elephants Don’t Get Cancer

MARA SUNRISEPhoto by RayMorris1

Why elephants almost never get cancer is a puzzle that scientists haven’t solved for decades. Our modern way of living has caused us many health issues, and most of them are cancer related diseases.


Even though people have been dragging elephants into their modern world, elephants still have 40 more chances of blocking cancer successfully. Nature has already found a way to prevent cancer in people. So, now we have a unique opportunity to learn from these animals that solved the problem. By adapting those strategies we will be able to prevent cancer.

All elephant species rarely get cancer, so what is their secret and how do they avoid this disease? An American research team has tried to find an answer. When elephants are babies, they weight about 100 kg.  Also in less than 10 years they grow to more than 3,000 kg. When cells multiply, there’s a risk of DNA not being copied faithfully and with such a high rate of cell division in a large animal is prone to errors. Since elephants live a long life, these mutations should accumulate and cause malignant tumors thorough their lifespan. Their body size and age will bring a great risk of cancer diseases all the time.

Cancer is a disease that comes from aging, and elephant’s life span is to even 70 years. Over the course of their long life elephants grow a lot, turning into giants. All that fast growing involves division of cells that may give a chance for potentially lethal genetic mistakes. Death caused by cancer varies from species, ranging from 20% of deaths in cheetahs, 8% of deaths in African wild dogs and only 1% in the rock hyrax. 

A new study shows that the elephants have many of extra copies of one of the most powerful genes in cancer prevention. These extra genes might enable elephants to remove the potentially dangerous cells before they can grow into tumors. To better understand the elephants’ defenses, the scientists investigated a gene p53 that is crucial for preventing cancer. It can prompt the cells to repair the genes, and also has the ability to stop cells from further dividing.  It can also even cause the cells to make suicide.


Elephants may have a more robust mechanism that can kill damaged cells that are at risk for becoming cancerous. Compared to healthy human cells, this activity is doubled in isolated elephant cells and it is five times bigger in Li-Fraumeni Syndrome patients.

The Li-Fraumeni syndrome is a state that creates risk of cancer in more than 90 % during the whole life. Many people that suffer from Li-Fraumeni syndrome get cancers in their earliest years and several types of cancer through life. Scientists discovered that elephants have 20 new copies of the p53 gene, while humans have only one pair of p53 genes. So, the scientists now focus on that particular p53 gene because of its importance in cancer regulation in humans. Will these results really help people and elephants to avoid cancer are yet to be discovered in the future.


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