Elephants and whales are in their own way just as interesting a target of study for cancer researchers as naked mole-rats. Cancer risk is a numbers game, based on incidence of mutation and capacity of cancer suppression mechanisms to destroy cancerous cells before they can form a tumor. Given that elephants have many more cells than humans, but a lower rate of cancer, what are the differences in cellular biochemistry that explain that outcome? Might any one or more of those differences form the basis for therapies in human medicine? It is a little early to say at this stage whether or not the comparative biology of cancer will lead to meaningful advances in control over human cancer, but a number of lines of research are underway in this part of the field.
An estimated 17 percent of humans worldwide die from cancer, but less than five percent of captive elephants – who also live for about 70 years, and have about 100 times as many potentially cancerous cells as humans – die from the disease. Humans, like all other animals, have one copy of the master tumor suppressor gene p53. This gene enables humans and elephants to recognize
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