Monday is a day we normally talk about how eating citrus is a very healthy thing to do. Today we are taking a slight detour. Why do Elephants have enhanced defenses against cancer that can prevent tumors from forming?
Scientists are trying to explain why the animals have lower levels of cancer than would be expected by their size. There is a train of thought that says every cell can become cancerous so the more of them you have, the more likely you are to get cancer.
So if an elephant has 100 times as many cells as a person then the trunk-swinging mammals should be 100 times more likely to have the disease. And yet the analysis, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed only 5% of elephants die from cancer compared to up to 25% of people.
Cancer is caused by mutations in a cell's DNA that produce faulty instructions leading to rampant growth as the cell spirals out of control. But animals also have "smoke alarms" that detect the damage and either lead to the cell being repaired or killed.
One of these alarms is called TP53, and while humans have one TP53 gene, elephants have 20. As a result, elephants seem far more keen to kill off cells on the cusp of going rogue. Dr Joshua Schiffman, one of the researchers and a pediatric oncologist, said: "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.
Environmental causes along with the rise of unhealthy, cancer-causing behaviors, such as obesity and sunbathing seem to be triggers for humans. Keep in mind you have never seen an elephant smoke!
In an evolutionary sense "success" is judged by the number of descendants you have rather than how long you live. Elephants have the greatest reproductive success towards the end of their lives, while humans can live for decades after the menopause. It means there is little evolutionary pressure in humans to develop ways of preventing cancer in old age.
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