Elephants and diamonds could unlock the secrets of cancer

In the fight against cancer, scientists are turning to two fascinating sources to help find the answers to why we suffer the disease and how it can best be treated.

A study released this week examined a question that has puzzled scientists for years –why don’t elephants get cancer?

The huge mammals have 100 times as many cells as humans and a similar life span, yet cancer is an extremely rare phenomenon in the great beasts.

“They should be 100 times more likely to have a cell slip into a cancerous state and trigger the disease over their long life span of 50 to 70 years,” scientists at the University of Utah said.

However, the mortality rate from cancer for elephants is only 5 per cent, compared to 25 per cent for humans.

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Scientists from the University of Utah and Arizona State University combed through elephant DNA and discovered a fascinating thing: elephants have extra genes that stop cancer in its tracks.

They have “at least 40 copies of genes that code for p53, a protein well known for its cancer-inhibiting properties,” scientists said. In comparison, humans have only two copies of such genes.

“It’s as if the elephants said, ‘It’s so important that we don’t get cancer, we’re going to kill this cell and start over fresh,'” said Joshua Schiffman, one of the study’s author and a pediatric oncologist at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

“If you kill the damaged cell, it’s gone, and it can’t turn into cancer. This may be more effective of an approach to cancer prevention than trying to stop a mutated cell from dividing and not being able to completely repair itself.”

Scientists believe elephants have evolved to survive cancer.

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“By all logical reasoning, elephants should be developing a tremendous amount of cancer, and in fact, should be extinct by now due to such a high risk for cancer,” Schiffman said. “We think that making more p53 is nature’s way of keeping this species alive.”

“Nature has already figured out how to prevent cancer,” Schiffman told CNN. “It’s up to us to learn how different animals tackle the problem so we can adapt those strategies to prevent cancer in people.”

In other news released this week, diamonds could be used to help identify some of the most difficult-to-treat cancers at their earliest stages.

Physicists from the University of Sydney have found a way to make nanoscale, synthetic diamonds light up inside a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine, and hope to use the technique to guide doctors to areas in the body where there is cancer.

The nano-diamonds are injected into the body and tracked as they move through the patient’s body. There are certain chemicals that “hang out” with specific cancers, and the idea is that the nano diamonds will be attracted to those chemicals.

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If cancer is present, the chemicals will be attracted to the site and the attached diamonds will provide a “lighthouse” on the MRI scan.

“Having those chemicals target certain types of cancers, bind to certain types of receptors, is something that’s advanced,” lead researcher Professor David Reilly to the ABC.

“What we’ve done is now develop that lighthouse to image those things in an MRI, thereby [allowing us to] actually see the cancers light up, without having to open somebody up.”

It is hoped this novel treatment could help with cancers that are difficult to detect such as brain and pancreatic cancers.

Do you believe that nature holds the answers to defeating cancer?