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It is the rare human life that is not touched by cancer. My mother and maternal grandmother died of abdominal cancers. My sister and my mother both had thyroid cancer, but were treated for it and survived. Hubby’s aunt died of breast cancer, and his mother has survived melanoma. If you’ve lived a few decades, it’s almost certain someone in your family or circle of friends—or you, yourself—have had cancer.
Yet there are some species of mammals for which the occurrence of cancer is very rare, specifically elephants and whales. Why is this?
Cancer is typically caused by damage to cellular DNA which in turn causes uncontrolled growth of these cells. Long-lived mammal species (such as elephants, whales and humans) possess mechanisms that can repair this damage and thus reduce the likelihood that cancer can occur. There exists a gene in mammals called p53 which helps to repair DNA damage during cell replication. Humans (and most other mammals) have one copy of this gene, which produces 2 proteins that work to repair damage to DNA. By contrast, elephants have 20 copies of p53, which produce 40 different DNA repair proteins.
In mammals, p53 plays a crucial role in preventing mutated cells from turning into tumors. It works by pausing replication and then either initiating repair or causing cells to self-destruct if the damage is too extensive. Without action from p53, cancer can easily take hold: in more than half of all human cancers, the gene's function has been lost through random mutations.
The scientists virtually modeled and examined elephants' 40 p53 proteins, finding two ways the gene could help elephants avoid cancer. First, the fact that elephants possess multiple copies lowers the chance of p53 no longer working because of mutations. Additionally, elephants' p53 copies activate in response to varying molecular triggers and so respond to damaged cells differently, which likely gives an edge when detecting and weeding out mutations.
In essence, elephants don’t get cancer because if there is the slightest hint that a cancer-causing mutation has occurred, the elephant genome contains the capacity to launch a massive retaliation against it. We humans, however, have just one measly p53 gene that itself can mutate and thus become non-functioning. It is under these circumstances that we become vulnerable to cancer.
So, to the obvious question: How can we use this finding to reduce the occurrence of cancer in humans? Researchers are quoted as saying things like “Exciting possibilities for exploring powerful new approaches cancer protection in humans,” but what does this mean. Of course, the source is a digest of a scientific paper, but still, no specifics are presented suggesting how the elephants’ 20 copies of p53 imply a way to beef up our singular p53 gene to prevent cancer. Cross-species gene transfer, to my knowledge, is forbidden by the law and the community of scientists, at least currently.
We’ll have to wait for the next development in this discovery.
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Top Comments (October 22-23, 2022):
From both Bourne2Bmild and nela1872:
Clutch Cargo’s comment in News Corpse’s post on Biden’s killer meme:
We can see two major aspects of our potential Republican dystopian future in:
Vladimir Putin’s tyranny in Russia.
The Morality Police in Iran.
These are what Republicans want for our future.
BournetoBmild: It seems a Fascist state is indeed the goal of the Right.
nela1872: I think this is very spot-on. It's an excellent comment -- one of the best -- and I think it belongs in Top Comments.
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