Scientists have known for some time that cancer is unusually rare in elephants. Just three per cent of the giant mammals succumb to the disease over their lifetime. But only now are we starting to understand why.
Josh Schiffman, a paediatric oncologist from Utah, is at the forefront of research into what makes elephants’ cancer resistant, and he’s hopeful his findings will pave the way for a revolutionary treatment for humans.
At the heart of Schiffman’s research is a tumour-suppressing protein known as p53. Both humans and elephants have the protein, but Schiffman has found that elephants have many more copies and they’re much stronger.
When DNA damage occurs, p53 either fixes or eliminates the problem. Sometimes that means killing cancerous cells, but in many cases it stops the cancer from even developing.
Schiffman is now working on a paper which shows that p53 can kill cells in the seven cancers, including lung, breast and bone, he’s tested it on to date, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
When human cancer cells are injected with Shiffman’s synthetic elephant p53, they shrivel up and explode in a dish.
“Nature has had millions of years to figure this out,” he said. “What we’re doing is learning from nature,” Schiffman told the Salt Lake Tribune.
The cancer specialist said that he hasn’t found a cure for cancer, but added the protein is “working and it’s working better than we ever could have imagined”.
The next step for Schiffman and his team is to begin pre-clinical trials, in which the protein is tested on mice as well as pet dogs.
It would be administered using nanoparticles already used to deliver chemotherapy, which could help get the treatment approved.
But he hopes that within three years the treatment could be tested on humans, presuming he can secure the £20 million needed to pay for the trials.
It’s far from the first time that scientists have turned to the natural world for inspiration for cancer treatments.
Only last month, scientists announced that salmonella could be modified to treat one of the most aggressive forms of cancer – brain tumours.
Researchers from Duke University used the novel treatment on rats with glioblastoma, and saw significant increases in lifespan. Around 20 per cent of rodents survived 100 days longer than those without it.