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Elephants less prone to get cancer

Lindsey Tanner
Associated Press

Chicago – — Cancer is much less common in elephants than in humans, even though the big beasts’ bodies have many more cells. That’s a paradox known among scientists, and now researchers think they may have an explanation — one they say might someday lead to new ways to protect people from cancer.

Compared with just one copy in humans, elephants’ cells contain 20 copies of a major cancer-suppressing gene, two teams of scientists report. The gene helps damaged cells repair themselves or self-destruct when exposed to cancer-causing substances.

The findings aren’t proof that those extra p53 genes make elephants cancer-resistant, but if future research confirms it, scientists could try to develop drugs for humans that would mimic the effect.

Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric cancer specialist at the University of Utah who led one of the teams, began his research after hearing a lecture a few years ago about Peto’s paradox. That refers to the fact that large animals including elephants and whales, have comparatively low cancer rates even though they have many more cells than smaller species. Cancer involves uncontrolled cell growth.