Scientists probe elephant genes for cancer clues

As dozens of circus elephants prepare to retire at a Central Florida preserve, researchers are studying their genes, believed to be the key to the species’ low incidence of cancer.

POLK CITY, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES (RECENT) (RINGLING BROTHERS) – For more than 20 years this 200-acre expanse in central Florida has served as a resting and breeding ground for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ hulking Asian elephants. At the moment, it’s home to 29 elephants ranging from two to 70 years old, but lately it’s also become a sprawling cancer research lab. Scientists along with support from Feld Entertainment that owns the famed circus company are exploring how genetics play a part in helping the huge animals enjoy an unusually low occurrence of cancer.

“We’re doing research on the P53 gene that helps to get to know how elephant has more copies of the gene and they have a low prevalence of cancer so by using that mechanism and learning from the elephants we hope to help children with cancer,” said Wendy Kiso, a conservation research scientists for the Ringling Bros. Elephant Conservation Center.

While humans have only one set of the gene that scientist say acts like cellular police, patrolling the body and ordering cancerous cells to fix themselves or die, elephants are believed to have as many 20 copies.

The research comes as the conservation center prepares to welcome more elephants than ever before. Circus officials earlier this year announced that it would retire all 42 of its largest performers by early 2018 citing consumers’ “mood shift.” The move ends a century long tradition of touring pachyderms performing for audiences across the United States and comes amid growing criticism targeted at entertainment companies that use large animals like elephants and killer whales.

“And the decision was made and I must say it was a bittersweet decision because there have been a lot of let’s say vocal chorus and a lot of legislation that really didn’t enable us to care for an manage our elephants on a consistent basis,” said Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also released U.S. Department of Agriculture documents showing that since at least 2010 nearly two dozen elephants were diagnosed with a human strain of tuberculosis that is transmittable to workers, the public, and other elephants.

Meanwhile, as the population of elephants living the conservation center swells, the research will only intensify, according to the researchers. Scientists are only in the initial phase of studying how the P53 gene works in elephants and it will be years before they determine whether it can be safely replicated in humans.