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Elephants: the Key to a Cure for Cancer?

Swamp Stomp

Volume 18 Issue 36

Cancer, a disease known only too well by so many of us. It’s a disease that comes in many shapes, sizes, and forms. What is cancer though, besides being a popular antagonist in young adult TV shows and books, and what makes this disease so deadly?

Humans and all other living organisms are made up of cells, trillions of them. Our cells divide and redivide, again and again, in order to create new tissue and replace older worn-out cells. It is an automatic process that we have little control over. DNA, located in the nucleus of every cell, controls when a cell divides and makes copies of itself in the process. Sometimes though, the DNA is copied incorrectly resulting in various defects. These defects, or mutations, can be good things; they can result in genetic variation that allows a species to evolve over time. Many times, these defects result in diseases, and one such disease is cancer. Cancer is the rapid uncontrolled growth of cells. This cell division can create tumors, and these tumors can be deadly to the organism. Cancer is not only a serious disease in humans but in of many other species of animals as well.

Knowing what we know about cancer, it might be reasonable to assume that the larger the animal is and the more cells there are, the more likely an animal is to get cancer, right? Wrong. Elephants, which are particularly large animals, actually break this trend, due to their unique DNA. Within human DNA, there is a certain gene that acts as a tumor suppressor, known as P53. Humans have one copy of this gene, while elephants have 20 copies. P53 works by ordering cells that are at risk for cancer to be destroyed. With 20 copies of this gene, elephants are at a significantly lower risk of cancer than humans. Scientists studying this gene in elephants found that P53 works with another gene, Leukemia Inhibitory Factor (LIF6), which is actually responsible for destroying the at-risk cancer cells. When a cancerous cell begins to develop, P53 activates LIF6.

What does this mean for humans? Although cancer is a widely studied and well-known disease, scientists still have a lot of questions to answer before they can come up with a cure. By studying how other animals defend themselves, scientists hope to be able to develop a way to mimic these defenses in humans. We may find in the future that elephants end up being the gateway to a cure for cancer.


Wei-Haas, Maya. “Cancer Rarely Strikes Elephants. New Clues Suggest Why.” National Geographic. National Geographic. August 14, 2018. Web. August 26, 2018.

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