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Elephants and Cancer...the Strange Paradox

Give the immense size of elephants, the amount of cells they have (about 100 times more than humans), and their relatively long life span of around 70 years, it stands to reason that elephants should get cancer and die from it more often than we as humans do.

But that's not what happens.

Instead, elephants die from cancer at a rate of just around five percent. In contrast, humans suffer cancer-related deaths at a rate of 11 to 25 percent.

So, why the big difference? Scientists believe they may have figured that one out.

In a recent paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers showed that elephants have 20 copies of a gene called TP53, which is known for its ability to create a protein that suppresses tumors. Humans have just one copy of TP53.

Scientists conducted experiments (by exposing white blood cells collected from elephants and humans to radiation that damaged the cells' DNA) to see what role the extra tumor-fighting genes might play in keeping cancer at bay in elephants. Scientists figured out that the elephant cells would likely just repair themselves faster because of the extra TP53 genes, but they were in for a surprise.

Turns out that the elephants' damaged cells actually died at a much faster rate than the human cells. Essentially, the extra TP53 caused the elephant white blood cells to just kill themselves rather than pass on potentially dangerous mutations.

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