Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Utah Doctor Probes Elephants' Cancer Clues

For years, he didn’t really think about it when he’d pass the Hogle Zoo on his way to work each day. But Joshua Schiffman knows now that the elephants inside offer important clues about preventing cancer.

Hogle Zoo’s African elephants trumpet on command and paint with their trunks. But you can’t see their most extraordinary trick: avoiding cancer.

Elephants ought to be way more likely to get cancer, since they have 100 times more cells than humans. Yet only around 4 percent of elephants get cancer, while the human risk is around 40 percent.

What protects elephants is a gene called “p53,” which is sometimes called a “guardian gene.” Elephants have 40 copies of it. Most humans have two.

And Joshua Schiffman treats kids who have just one, and an almost certain risk of cancer. A pediatric oncologist at Primary Children’s Hospital and investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, he visited Hogle’s elephants with his young children a few years ago and left with a big idea.

Since then, his team compared elephant genes with human ones and discovered a Superhero gene that doesn’t just repair cells with genetic errors. It kills off damaged cells.

“Instead of trying to fix an old car that needs repairs,” Schiffman says, “it’s as if you just get rid of that car and buy a whole new car.

“And when we saw that, we said: ‘Aha!’ Nature has done it again. Right? How brilliant! Evolution over 55 million years has figured out that the best way to avoid cancer is just to eliminate the cell and start over.”

Schiffman’s team is collaborating now with researchers in Israel and throughout the United States, as well as the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City and the Ringling Brothers Center for Elephant Conservation. The research debuted earlier this month in the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association.

“And now the race is on," Schiffman says, “to try to figure out how do we use that information to help our human patients – not just our pediatric patients but anybody who’s at risk for cancer.”

He says there’s urgency to the collaboration.

“Everyone on our team knows that this is important," he says. "One child with cancer is one child too many.”

An area of their ongoing research focuses on potential ways to deliver p53's cancer-fighting properties to the cells where they are needed.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.