No, this isn’t a joke.
Animals don’t have some kind of cosmic radiation emanating from the left side of their brain that makes them immortal. This isn’t an essential oil commercial either.
Nature has actually beat cancer. Besides elephants and whales, we’re convinced that at least 10 other animals could do the same, and there might be thousands more we haven’t even discovered yet.
That means nature’s beat cancer 12 times — and potentially in 12 unique ways.
On the other hand, it looks like us homo sapiens got the short end of the stick when it came to evolution. Even with our scientific knowledge and millennia of research, we haven’t found a single reliable cure.
But that begs the question — do they know or use something we don’t? Could we learn a thing or two from our animal friends? And if so, what would it mean for a disease that’s ravaged us since the beginning of time?
Big Animals & Peto’s Paradox:
There are too many theories that are up for debate when it comes to cancer, but one thing we know for sure is that it’s a cellular disease.
If your body was a computer, then cancer would be like programming it with buggy code and running it anyway. In our bodies, these errors (called mutations) take place in our DNA — the chemical building blocks that our bodies run on.
But unlike the analogy of a computer, our bodies aren’t perfect. Most of us are born mutation-free — but the right combination of mutations at the right time is all it takes for us to develop cancer.
Whether it’s exposure to UV light, smoking, or just bad luck, our genetic code becomes that much more vulnerable to mutating for the worse.
Except, here’s where things stop making sense. Enter Peto’s paradox:
Sure, this is an oversimplification, but every one of our cells has roughly the same odds of developing into a tumour. But with that logic, whales and dinosaurs would have gone extinct a long, long time ago. Actually, dinosaurs might not be the best analogy…
Blue whales, elephants, or horses (all creatures made up of more cells than us) aren’t much more likely to get cancer. In fact, most of them are a lot less likely to get it than us — despite their size.
“An animal’s size isn’t correlated to its risk of getting cancer.”
Take the ‘big twelve’ creatures that adapted to their massive frames, and found ways to protect themselves from cancer in the process. Even though the list keeps changing, for now, they include:
- Water Buffalo
- Indian Bison
- Shire Horses
- Polar Bears
- Elephant Seals
On top of that — every one of them evolved to their final size. Not a single one started out like that.
Since these animals are still around, it would mean they were forced to “out-evolve” cancer. If not, natural selection would’ve weeded them out — or at least stopped them from growing bigger.
Even though we have no idea how most of them did it, we do know that they had to have found a way.
These animals’ cells aren’t radically different from ours. It’s not like they eat magical food from outer space, either. In more ways than you’d think, we have lots in common.
That leaves us with a realization. If it isn’t a clear difference like that, it would mean animals with a lower risk of cancer must have evolved to gain some sort of natural defences to it.
The only question is — “What are they?”
P53 — The Magic Gene:
When it comes to the elephant — it happens to be pretty straightforward.
Looking at its 6-ton weight alone, you’d be surprised to know that the average elephant’s around 5X less likely to die from cancer compared to humans. The secret? Scientists think it’s the presence (or over presence) of a little piece of their genetic code called p53.
If you’ve ever looked into the genetics behind cancer, you’ve probably heard of it. p53(better known as tumour protein 53), despite its name, is actually a tiny part of your DNA that tells your body to produce a type of protein:
Because of its unique geometry, that protein happens to be vital to how our cells choose to divide, and when they die.
To be more specific, the protein that p53 produces prevents cells from dividing forever (becoming cancerous). And one of their most valuable functions is their ability to kill defective cells.
When our cells go through potentially dangerous mutations, p53’s there to stop them in their tracks. The protein gets the cells to self-destruct ina dramatic explosion — in a process called apoptosis.
Now, while almost every living creature in the animal kingdom has p53 or one of its alternatives built-in, elephants are a strange case. With all the research we’ve conducted on their cell biology, we’ve narrowed down their cancer-resistance to two factors:
First off — elephant cells are insanely sensitive to mutations. With even the slightest possibility of damage, their cells undergo apoptosis — destroying what could be the start of a tumour.
Second, we know that humans come with 2 copies of p53 — one from each parent. Elephants have 40. Not only does that mean better responses to potential cancers — it means a lower risk of the p53 gene mutating since there’s no shortage of backup.
Again — it’s one of the most straightforward approaches you could take to defeat cancer. A pretty obvious contrast from how whales go about it.
Hyper-Tumours And Meta-Neoplasms:
Unlike the elephant’s “genetic fax machine” approach — whales are a bit more sophisticated. Well, with a title like “hyper-tumours,” I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t be surprised if this section covered super-massive black holes or quantum dynamics.
But aside from the complexity, whales seriously have some CRAZY stuff going on inside them. Like what, you might ask? Like a cancer hijacking another cancer infecting another cancer that's attacking their actual cancer.
That can’t be good, right?
The short answer is, we don’t know. Even though whales are one of the most researched animals when it comes to cancer prevention, all we have are some loose theories around how they do it. But for an animal the size of a basketball court, even the most unbelievable theories aren’t too far-fetched:
With that size comes some really high odds of getting cancer. Of course, it might be too unlikely to happen in humans, but for animals with quadrillions of cells, it’s not an impossible idea to think that cancer cells can develop cancer themselves.
It might even be inevitable.
Judging from the paper that pioneered the theory, researchers suggest that whales with cancer might develop even quicker-evolving hyper-tumours (meta-neoplasms) that kill the original one. This is where opinions vary.
Some scientists hypothesize that whales actually do get cancer — the only reason they don’t die as often might be because of their size.
Since they’re so large, it would take a whole lot longer for cancers to grow to the fatal size — but before they do, they’re extinguished by hyper-tumours. Their lives make up a constant cycle of cancer destruction and rebirth.
Others think whales over-express genes just like elephants do. It might help them suppress tumours from growing, or it might stop them from forming in the first place.
When it comes to the evidence we have so far, this theory seems to make the most sense because we rarely see any tumours in whales at all. Some even link whales’ anti-cancer properties to the plankton they eat and even the surface area of their skin.
They all sound pretty wild — but we’ll never know unless we really try. Until then, the endless vitality of whales remains a mystery.
All those methods are useless. At least for now.
Looking at the natural defences that large animals like elephants and whales developed — they’re too impractical, not to mention dangerous:
Right off the bat, you can’t replicate hyper-tumours in a human. Even if you did, it would do more harm than good. The only reason we think whales survive their constant onslaught of miniature cancers is because of their size.
Relative to their massive bodies, even enormous tumours don’t make much of a difference. Sure, we could find a way to get humans to grow that big as a workaround, but it might be more practical to just cure cancer regularly.
And when it comes to elephants — we don’t know. Our genes make us who we are. The most we’ve ever edited our DNA has been at most a couple of letters — and that’s after we’re born.
Who knows what might happen if we fundamentally changed the way people pass on their genes? Besides, doing would be very, very illegal.
Even though we’ve crossed off elephants and whales from creatures to mimic, there’s an ever-growing list of them we haven’t even researched yet. Probability-wise — one of them’s bound to use a practical, effective, and safe approach. We hope.
But one thing’s clear — whatever we’ve learned by mimicking animals hasn’t worked. If it did, we wouldn’t have nearly as many people dying of cancer as do today.
That could mean one of two things — either we haven’t researched long or hard enough, or there’s something unique about the human body that makes it unresponsive to those approaches. Whatever it ends up being — it would cause a paradigm shift in the way we fight cancer.
But an animal-inspired cancer vaccine? Not likely — at least anytime soon.
Thanks for reading.