Elephants may unpack a trunkload of info about human cancers

Feb 22, 2021

Elephants are a favorite animals of people who like to watch the huge mammals roam vast plains and use their long trunks for food and water. What’s different about elephants is that they can get cancer, but don’t die from it.

What scientists are learning is that those giant bodies -- and the bodies of all of their genetic relatives of any size -- contain vast amounts of cancer tumor suppressors.

University at Buffalo Biology Assistant Professor Vincent Lynch said it has become a fascinating topic of research.

"You’d think that elephants out there on the plains of the Serengeti, exposed to all this sunlight might get skin cancer, but they don’t. They do get these muscular cancers -- cancer in the muscle -- but it never turns to metastatic cancer, never travels throughout the body. And it doesn’t kill them. They just sort of have cancer," Lynch said.

Working with University of California at Berkeley biologist Juan Manuel Vazquez, Lynch said they suspect these tumor suppressors are why elephants and all of their relatives, alive or extinct, grew to large sizes. He says studying the elephants and the tumor suppressors might offer clues to applying this research to human cancers.