Scientists believe that cancer treatments could be aided by a study on hug elephants and their private parts.
Cancers start with one cell getting damaged, and as the cancer spreads the body’s repair systems can quickly become overwhelmed.
But elephants, which are many times bigger than humans and so have more cells in their bodies that could potentially go wrong, rarely suffer from cancer.
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And the reason for that, scientists now suspect, is down to elephants’ big hot balls.
Testicles tend to work better at lower temperatures, so in warm-blooded creatures such humans they are generally located on the outside of the body – often in a container that can expand and contract depending on the outside temperature.
But, by a quirk of evolution, an elephant’s testicles are located inside its body. For a large, dark-grey beast that tends to live in very warm countries that can be a problem.
As a result, the error-correction systems inside elephants’ cells are many times more efficient than that in their cancer-prone human cousins.
And it’s down to a protein known to scientists as p53. Biologists recently discovered that elephants have 20 copies of the gene that encodes the p53 protein. By contrast, we have just one.
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Fritz Vollrath, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, said this could help to protect their sperm from hot temperatures.
On June 27, he wrote in scientific journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution: “Each and every division of a cell carries the risk of a mutation, and larger animals have more somatic cell divisions than smaller ones.
“Consequently, very large animals ought to be more likely to develop cancer. But they do not, if anything the opposite, which is known as Peto’s paradox”.
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He points out that a mouse’s normal core body temperature is 36.6°C, while mouse testicles are kept at an average of 34°C. If the mouse produces sperm at temperatures around 37°C they are less fertile with high levels of unrepaired DNA. Sperm produced at 38°C will simply die.
With their testicles stored inside their bodies, “Elephants cannot benefit from such scrotal cooling,” Vollrath writes, “and their testes consequently would shadow core body temperatures, which circle around 36–37°C”.
As a result, the increased error correction coming from the p53 proteins is needed to make sure that elephants produce viable sperm that can ensure the next generation of jumbos.
The fact that p53 also prevents cancer is, scientists think, a nice bonus. In future, better understanding of how the protein does its work could lead to new treatments that will prevent or even reverse cancers in humans.
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