Researchers studying pachyderms in Utah believe elephant gene could help humans fight cancer

Posted at 5:41 PM, Oct 09, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-10 00:00:21-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Could studying elephants lead to a cure for cancer?

That's something researchers at the University of Utah and the Huntsman Cancer Institute are trying to find out.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), scientists found a link between a specific gene found in humans and elephants and their health.

“We learned at a conference several years ago that elephants have many, many copies of this cancer protection gene. It wasn’t known, but suggested maybe this could be the reason why they don’t develop cancer,” said Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric oncologist and research investigator at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Most people have two copies of the TP53 gene. It’s considered the “Guardian of the Genome” by many in the medical community because it encodes a protein that acts as a tumor suppressor. While humans get one from their mother and father, elephants have 40 copies of the genes.

Three years ago, Schiffman approached the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City to see if they would be interested in donating samples of blood from their elephants to study.

“I was all for it,” said elephant manager Eric Peterson.

The animals receive weekly blood tests as part of their health checkups at the zoo, so Peterson had no concerns distributing some of the samples to Schiffman.

“Everybody wants to fight cancer,” he explained. “So, the fact that an animal I take care of could possibly hold a cure or lead to a cure for cancer is just amazing to me.”

Schiffman and other researchers from the U of U, Huntsman Cancer Institute, and Arizona State University studied the samples and compared them to those of healthy people and cancer patients. They subjected the white blood cells taken from the animals to treatments of drugs and radiation that damage DNA, triggering cancer.

However, in response, the TP53 gene fought back. As it is supposed to react, the damaged cells self-destructed, preventing them from dividing and spreading.

“This piece of knowledge, will be a very critical piece in the overall jigsaw puzzle of childhood cancer,” said Dr. Edward Clark, chief medical officer at Primary Children’s Hospital.

According to Clark, approximately 200 families come to the hospital every year with a new diagnosis of cancer. This discovery could potentially reduce those numbers.

However, how soon that could happen remains unclear.

Schiffman is optimistic that they could be in the early stages of testing a new drug within the next 3 to 5 years.

“We can learn how to find a drug perhaps that mimics the effect of these extra copies of P53,” Schiffman said, “Or maybe even one day figure out how to deliver P53 from elephants directly into people.”

In the meantime, they plan to continue their work. They have teamed up with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus to raise money and support for the research in the future.

“What can be worse than telling a parent and a child that you have cancer?” Schiffman said. “By keeping an open mind and by look around us when we visited the circus, we now have become pioneers in our community.”