19th October 2015

Tips for avoiding cancer – be more elephant?

An intriguing new study from the University of Utah has demonstrated that elephants are much less likely to die from cancer than humans. This is surprising as, based on their enormous size, it would make sense for elephants to be 100 times more prone to the disease than we are.

This begs the question, why are elephants so resistant to cancer? Is it in their genetic code? Possibly. Our cells contain a gene called TP53, known to protect against cancer. Elephants have 20 copies of the TP53 gene, as opposed to our mere single copy. Or could it be the lifestyle choices we make? Unlike us, elephants do not indulge in risky lifestyle choices such as smoking, sunbathing, and drinking alcohol.

Another possibility is that we humans are particularly bad at preventing cancer. Indeed, the human cancer rate is much higher than that of any other animal species. It has been suggested that this may relate to our evolutionary pressures and the human menopause. Unlike the elephant, which reproduces more towards the end of the life span, human menopause means that reproduction only occurs earlier in life, giving no selective pressure to prevent diseases later in life.

What is clear is that we have a lot to learn about preventing cancer from studying those who are already much better at it than we are ...