With an army of tumour-fighting proteins in their genes, elephants could hold the key to curing cancer, according to new research.
The tumour-fighting proteins they carry can destroy mutated cells, say scientists.
This could explain why Earth’s largest land animals are over five times less likely to develop cancer than humans.
Harnessing the elephant’s genes could lead to a ‘one size fits all’ therapy for one of the world’s biggest killers.
‘This intricate and intriguing study demonstrates how much more there is to elephants than impressive size and how important it is that we not only conserve but also study these signature animals in minute detail,’ said the study’s co-author Professor Fritz Vollrath, of the University of Oxford.
‘After all, their genetics and physiology are all driven by evolutionary history as well as today’s ecology, diet and behaviour,’
Despite their five ton bodies and longevity, elephants exhibit high resistance to cancer with less than five percent mortality compared to up to 25 percent for humans.
It’s a phenomenon has puzzled biologists for decades as large creatures should be at greater risk for cancer as cells keep dividing 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. Dubbed the ‘guardian of the genome’, it hunts down and kill cells with faulty DNA.
All other mammals have just two of this tough gene — one from each parent.
Biochemical analysis and computer simulations also showed the 40 versions in elephants are structurally slightly different, providing a much wider range of anti-cancer activity.
‘This is an exciting development for our understanding of how p53 contributes to preventing cancer development,’ said another co-author Professor Robin Fahraeus, of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research.
‘In humans, the same p53 protein is responsible for deciding if cells should stop proliferating or go into apoptosis (suicide) but how p53 makes this decision has been difficult to elucidate,’
‘The existence of several p53 forms in elephants with different capacities to interact offers an exciting new approach to shed new light on tumour suppressor activity.’
The findings published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution shed fresh light on how p53 proteins get activated.
These proteins open the door to developing medications that can increase its sensitivity and response against cancer causing environments.
The study’s lead author Dr Konstantinos Karakostis, of the Autonomous University of Barcelona said: ‘Conceptually, the accumulation of structurally modified p53 pools, collectively or synergistically co regulating the responses to diverse stresses in the cell, establishes an alternative mechanistic model of cell regulation of high potential significance to biomedical applications.’
Elephants, prized for their ivory tusks, are critically endangered after being driven to the brink of extinction by poachers.
Their numbers have experienced a significant decline over the last century with only about 400,000 left in Africa, and an estimated 30,000 in Asia.
A century ago, they were common across both continents. Elephants also face added threats from habitat loss and global warming.
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