It’s time for #FACTUAL FRIDAY Friends – and the perfect time to discuss the development of cancer and – of all things – the elephant.
Of course, the relationship between humans and elephants goes back thousands of years. The elephant has played a major role in the folklore, art and cultural development of human beings for centuries. They have been an integral part of daily human life being used for transportation, in armies, on labor forces – and have symbolized the embodiment of Gods in many religions throughout time.
As the largest land animal on earth, the elephant also is one of the most intelligent. They commonly demonstrate humor, cooperation, playfulness, problem solving and excellent learning abilities evidence by their ability to create and use tools. Moreover, they are family-oriented, dedicated and loyal to each other. They often remain in relationships until death and then grieve much like humans – becoming quiet and depressed, often digging a shallow grave and covering the deceased with dirt and branches.
And, throughout our long relationship with these incredible creatures, it now appears that the elephant also may help humans unlock the secrets of cancer development. So, let’s explore this fascinating possibility by reviewing two factors typical of cancer growth.
First, we know that the larger a living creature is, the more cells make up the body. And, when the number of cells within a body increases, the number of cell divisions increases. And, this means the chance of developing mutations that lead to cancer also increases. Second, the longer a being lives the more vulnerable its body cells become to damage and disease, including cancer.
But, here we have an elephant. Not only is it the largest living land animal on earth – but it also is one of the longest-living creatures on earth – often living until 60 or 65. Indeed, there are records of one elephant who lived until the age of 86. Yet, elephants rarely die of cancer. In fact, while up to 25 percent of humans die of cancer, less than 5 percent of elephants die of cancer. So, why is that??
Well, it appears that the elephant has more of a particular type of gene that suppresses tumor growth. Researchers have found that a gene called TP53 contains a protein that inhibits the growth of cancer cells. Referred to as the “guardian of the genome” an elephant inherits at least 20 copies of TP53 from each parent. In contrast, humans only inherit one copy of TP53 from each parent. And, in humans when one of these two inherited genes doesn’t work right the person may develop a condition known as Li-Fraumeni syndrome – a condition which increases their lifetime risk of developing cancer to greater than 90 percent.
Now, in recent studies conducted at the University of Utah School of Medicine researchers collected blood samples from 8 elephants – 2 African and 6 Asian. Researchers also obtained blood samples from 10 people with Li-Fraumeni syndrome and 11 people without the syndrome. The blood cells were then exposed to radiation, which we know is a risk factor for cancer. But, when a healthy cell is exposed to radiation, TP53 steps in and triggers a series of events that kill the cell before it can become cancerous.
The results of these studies were not surprising. Those individuals with Li-Fraumeni syndrome experienced the least cell death of only 2.7 percent – meaning the majority of their irradiated blood cells were not destroyed by the TP53. In other words, there simply were not enough TP53 genes in their bodies to make a significant difference. In healthy individuals without Li-Fraumeni syndrome 7.2 percent of the irradiated cells were destroyed by the TP53. But, in the elephants a whopping 14.6 percent of the irradiated blood cells were destroyed. And this, of course, explains in part why elephants rarely die of cancer.
Clearly, the study helps us understand why we humans are so ill-adapted to cancer. We have far fewer of the tumor suppressor TP53 genes in our bodies. But, what if we could increase the number of these genes in the human body?? Or expand their cancer-fighting abilities?? Or find ways to incorporate the qualities of the TP53 gene into cancer research, development and treatment??
Now, while the studies substantiate the cancer fighting power of the TP53 gene, it’s not clear if the gene’s properties could help prevent all human cancers in today’s world. For example, it might not be effective in preventing the lifestyle cancers related to poor diet, tobacco use or sun exposure.
Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating finding. And, the information gathered from these studies about TP53 adds more knowledge and provides us with more tools that will only strengthen our cancer-fighting abilities in the future.
We have always had a close and interdependent relationship with the elephant. And now, it appears that relationship will grow in a surprisingly new and expansive way. They say that elephants never forget. Well, I’ll never forget this! It’s an amazing world out there and this is an eye-opening bit of information that makes for a perfect #FACTUAL FRIDAY.
Once again, thanks for joining me everyone. Until next time stay in GOOD HEALTH and,
TAKE THE COURSE AND TAKE CHARGE!