A superhero gene in elephants is advancing cancer research

Why does the largest land mammal have a smaller chance of developing cancer than humans? Scientists in Utah have pinpointed a superhero gene that could open new possibilities in cancer research.

TRANSCRIPT

Why does the largest land mammal have a smaller chance of developing cancer than humans?

Scientists in Utah have pinpointed a superhero gene in elephants that could open the door to new possibilities in cancer research.

Here's the story.

I'm a doctor who takes care of children with cancer.

One of my particular areas of interest is in children and families who are at increased risk for cancer.

Over 16,000 children will develop cancer each year in North America.

And one child with cancer is one child too many.

And we're very interested and focused in our laboratory in trying to understand 'Why do kids get cancer, and is there anything we can do about it?'

I was at a medical conference one day where I learned that elephants rarely develop cancer.

This was a surprise to me.

But if you think about it, and you look at these wonderful creatures, they have so many cells in their body.

And they live 50, sometimes 60 years of age.

Just by chance alone, all these elephants should be developing and dying from cancer.

But they don't.

And that was really a very fascinating thing for me to hear.

You know your manners.

Suddenly, a light bulb went off.

And I thought, 'If we could get some of that elephant blood, we might be able to understand the mechanism behind why they don't get cancer.'

My name's Lauren LeCoque.

I'm the primary elephant keeper at Hogle Zoo.

And I take care of the elephants and the rhinos.

We actually get blood from the girls about once a week.

It gets down to our vet clinic, just like we would go to the doctor to get a checkup.

And it tells us their hormones.

We can check on their health.

So it's just part of our normal, everyday routine.

So when we collaborated with Dr. Schiffman, it was actually pretty easy for us to transition to getting him blood because we were already doing that with our elephants.

Behind the ears, they have very, very large prominent vein stack there.

And they actually use their ears as a cooling system.

So there's always blood flowing.

So, basically, the elephants lean in on either side.

They offer us their ear.

And then we draw from the vein back there.

Just like people, not all of us like going to the doctor to get our blood drawn.

So what we really try to do is work on our relationship with the elephants during the blood draw.

So it's a very positive experience.

They get lots of food, lots of praises.

It might be something that's a little uncomfortable for them.

But they really rely on our trust and our relationship.

Working together with the Hogle Zoo and the elephants and the blood from these amazing animals, we were able to take the cells into the laboratory and study how they respond to DNA damage.

And what we discovered astounded us.

When we looked at the elephant cells compared to people, we found that those elephant cells almost always died when they had any type of mutation.

It was as if the elephants had said, 'It's so important that we don't get cancer, why even try and stop the cell and repair it when we can just kill it and start over again?

That seems to be the safest way to make sure that mutations that can cause cancer won't be passed on.'

Elephants have extra copies of genes that are responsible in people for preventing cancer.

We all have two copies of a gene called P53, one copy from our mother and one copy from our father.

This gene called P53 is known as the guardian of the genome.

Its job is to fly around our cells and make sure if any mutations or changes develop in the DNA, that that cell is stopped and repaired or maybe even killed, so it can't go on -- pass on those changes that one day could develop into cancer.

Instead of two copies of P53, the elephants had evolved 40 copies of P53.

Dr. Schiffman's team is very enthusiastic about what they do.

And we're very passionate about elephants.

And so it's been very, very fun to work together to, basically, go to the same goal.

Unfortunately, almost 96 elephants a day are being poached for ivory.

So I think it's our responsibility to teach people about conservation and conserving the species.

So it's so important to protect elephants, especially because if people found out that elephants had the cure for cancer, they would really want to get on the bandwagon to help save these species.

And if we're saving kids with cancer and elephants, it's a win-win for everybody.

Nature has figured out how to prevent cancer in elephants.

Now what we need to do is take a page out of nature's playbook and figure out how to prevent cancer in people.

And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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