Cancer treatment: Elephants may hold key to curing disease, new research suggests

Elephants may hold the key to curing cancer, new research suggests.

According to scientists, they carry an army of antitumor proteins that destroy mutated cells.

This explains why Earth’s largest land animals are five times less likely to develop the disease than humans.

Harnessing genes could lead to ‘one size fits all’ therapy for one of the world’s biggest killers.

Co-author Professor Fritz Vollrath, from the University of Oxford, said: “This complex and intriguing study shows how much more than impressive size elephants are and how important it is not only to preserve but also to study these emblematic animals in the smallest details.

“After all, their genetics and physiology are all influenced by evolutionary history as well as today’s ecology, diet and behavior.”

Despite their five-tonne bodies and longevity, elephants exhibit high cancer resistance with less than 5% mortality – compared to up to 25% for us.

The phenomenon has intrigued biologists for decades. Large creatures should be more at risk.

Cells continue to divide throughout an organism’s life – each carrying the risk of producing a tumour.

But elephants inherit 40 versions of a gene called P53, 20 from each parent. They are nicknamed the “guardians of the genome”. They track down and kill cells with faulty DNA.

All other mammals have two.

Biochemical analysis and computer simulations have also shown that the 40 versions are structurally slightly different.

This provides a much wider range of anti-cancer activity than our poor two – one from each parent.

Co-author Professor Robin Fahraeus, from the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, Paris, said: “This is an exciting development for our understanding of how p53 contributes to prevent the development of cancer.

“In humans, the same p53 protein is responsible for deciding whether cells should stop proliferating or enter apoptosis (suicide), but how p53 makes this decision has been difficult to elucidate.

“The existence of multiple forms of p53 in elephants with different interacting abilities offers an exciting new approach to shed new light on tumor suppressor activity.”

Findings published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution shed new light on how p53 proteins are activated.

They open the door to the development of drugs that increase its sensitivity and response against carcinogenic environments.

Additional lead author Dr Konstantinos Karakostis, Autonomous University of Barcelona, ​​added: “Conceptually, the accumulation of structurally modified p53 pools, collectively or synergistically co-regulating responses to various stresses in the cell, establishes an alternative mechanistic model of cellular regulation of high potential importance for biomedical applications.

Elephants, prized for their ivory tusks, are critically endangered after being pushed to the brink of extinction by poachers.

Populations have experienced significant declines over the past century. There are now only about 400,000 left in Africa and about 30,000 in Asia.

A century ago, they were common to both continents. Elephants face additional threats from habitat loss and global warming.

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