CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

The Key to Cancer Prevention May Lie Within Elephants

Getty Images
Getty Images

The old adage “an elephant never forgets” might be a bit of an exaggeration, but something that an elephant is actually unlikely to do is to die of cancer. According to an estimate by pediatric oncologist Joshua Schiffman of the University of Utah, less than 5 percent of elephants will die of cancer—a significantly lower percentage than the 11 to 25 percent of humans who will succumb to the disease. And it all has to do with the pachyderms' genes. Two newly published studies by different teams of researchers found that elephants have multiple copies of the tumor protein 53 gene (TP53), which regulates cell division and may be saving the large mammals from deadly cancers.

The first study, published by Schiffman and colleagues in the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined necropsy data from 36 mammalian species of all sizes, from the rock hyrax to Asian and African elephants. The researchers found that cancer mortality did not increase with body size or maximum life span, and that while humans have one copy of the tumor suppressor TP53 gene, African elephants have at least 20. 

The team also subjected white blood cells from the elephants to treatments that damage DNA; such damage is a cancer trigger. The cells reacted to the damage with a "characteristic p53-mediated response": they killed themselves, a process of programmed cell death called apoptosis.

"It's as if the elephants said, 'It's so important that we don't get cancer, we're going to kill this cell and start over fresh," Schiffman said in a press statement. "If you kill the damaged cell, it's gone, and it can't turn into cancer. This may be more effective of an approach to cancer prevention than trying to stop a mutated cell from dividing and not being able to completely repair itself."

He added: "We think that making more p53 is nature's way of keeping this species alive."

Researchers conducting the second study, which was published in bioRxiv, came to the same conclusion about elephants and the TP53 gene. They also suggest that “an increase in the copy number of TP53 may have played a direct role in the evolution of very large body sizes and the resolution of Peto's paradox in Proboscideans.” Proboscidea is a taxonomic order of mammals that includes elephants, and Peto’s paradox, which is mentioned in both studies, is the observation by epidemiologist Richard Peto that cancer risk is not directly correlated to the number of cells in a body.

Schiffman told New Scientist that the results of the study could hold promise for the future of cancer prevention and treatment in humans. “Evolution has had 55 million years to figure out how to avoid cancer," he said. "Now I think it’s up to us to take a page out of nature’s playbook and learn how to take this information and apply it to those who need it most.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
holidays
Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
iStock
iStock

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
If You Want Your Cat to Poop Out More Hairballs, Try Feeding It Beets
iStock
iStock

Have you ever wondered if there’s a way to get your cat to poop out its hairballs instead of hacking them up? If so, you’re likely a seasoned cat owner whose tolerance for gross stuff has reached the point of no return. Luckily, there may be an easy way to get your cat to dispose of hairballs in the litter box instead of on your carpet, according to one study.

The paper, published in the Journal of Physiology and Animal Nutrition, followed the diets of 18 mixed-breed short-haired cats over a month. Some cats were fed straight kibble, while others were given helpings of beet pulp along with their regular meals. The researchers suspected that beets, a good source of fiber, would help move any ingested hair through the cats’ digestive systems, thus preventing it from coming back up the way it went in. Following the experiment, they found that the cats with the beet diet did indeed poop more.

The scientists didn’t measure how many hairballs the cats were coughing up during this period, so it's possible that pooping out more of them didn’t stop cats from puking them up at the same rate. But considering hairballs are a matter of digestive health, more regular bowel movements likely reduced the chance that cats would barf them up. The cat body is equipped to process large amounts of hair: According to experts, healthy cats should only be hacking hairballs once or twice a year.

If you find them around your home more frequently than that, it's a good idea to up your cat's fiber intake. Raw beet pulp is just one way to introduce fiber into your pet's diet; certain supplements for cats work just as well and actually contain beet pulp as a fiber source. Stephanie Liff, a veterinarian at Pure Paws Veterinary Care in New York, recommends psyllium powder to her patients. Another option for dealing with hairballs is the vegetable-oil based digestive lubricant Laxatone: According to Dr. Liff, this can "help to move hairballs in the correct direction."

[h/t Discover]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios