The key to fighting cancer might be found in an unlikely place, or rather an unlikely animal — elephants.
Less than five percent of elephants get cancer, which is amazing considering they have 100 times as many cells as humans and have a long life span of roughly 70 years. Statistically, elephants should have a much higher rate of cancer.
Dr. Joshua Schiffman and a team of researchers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute spent years trying to understand how, despite the mathematical odds, elephants have such an incredibly low rate of cancer.
“Elephants almost never get cancer,” Schiffman said. “And we think the reason why is they have extra copies of this cancer-fighting protein.”
After nearly 55 millions years of evolutionary growth, elephants have naturally developed many copies of a powerful cancer-fighting protein called p53, Schiffman explained.
Whenever there is DNA damage, p53 essentially comes in and fixes or eliminates the problematic cells in an attempt to keep the body healthy. Most mammals, including humans, have some p53, but elephants have many more copies, making them stronger.
The researchers were able to synthetically create p53 and then, under a microscope, let it loose on human cancer cells in petri dishes.
“What we’ve found is that the cancer cells are all dying very quickly when they’re exposed to this elephant cancer protein,” Schiffman said. “It is remarkable. The lab is so excited.”
When Schiffman was only 15-years-old, he was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma, an experience he credits as his motivation to do the work he does today. Watching p53 destroy cancer cells was “one of the most thrilling experiences” he’s had in his career thus far, Schiffman said.
Due to this incredible success, Schiffman and his team of researchers are now working with a lab in Israel to synthetically produce more of p53, which then will be tested on mice and eventually dogs.
If those trials are successful, Schiffman hopes to begin human trials in about three years. “I can tell you that one person with cancer is one person too many, whether it’s a child or an adult,” Schiffman said. “We are working as hard and as fast as we can to see if there’s a way to translate this discovery to start helping people.”
As the study continues into its next phase, the Huntsman Institute will need to raise about $2 million in order to complete the trials on animals and eventually humans.
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.