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Study: ASU professor says elephants could hold the key to cancer resistance in humans

A baby elephant plays as a herd of wild elephants, from a nearby hill of India's northeastern Meghalaya state, eat grass in the wetlands of Telalia, on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. Due to the increasing human population and deforestation, the areas for the wildlife get reduced and encroached incidents of wild animals straying into cities is increasingly reported. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

PHOENIX — An ASU professor said elephants are showing a strong resistance to cancer, research that he hopes one day can help humans.

Biologist Carlo Maley co-authored a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which said that elephants have 40 copies of the TP53 gene. Elephants have approximately 100 times more cells than humans but a far lower incidence rate of cancer.

The TP53 gene, which humans only have two copies of, is known to suppress cancerous tumors.

Maley said that elephants evolved over time to better resist cancer.

“This gives us a way of studying or learning how evolution has solved the problem of cancer prevention,” he said. “We might then eventually be able to take to the clinic and do better cancer prevention in humans.”

Maley said there is interest in creating a drug that could briefly turn on the TP53 gene to flush the body of damaged cells, but he cautions it could take a while before these findings affect humans.

“It typically takes on the order of 20 years between discovery and impacting the clinic,” he said. “It’s exciting, but there’s always a lot of work to be done.”

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