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Utah researchers say elephant protein is blasting cancer cells

SALT LAKE CITY — Proteins originally found in elephants are blasting through cancer cells in lab research, and scientists are hoping that with the right amount of support, nature's "drug" can be used to help humans, too.

"We are learning from nature to help people," said Dr. Joshua Schiffman, pediatric oncologist and medical director of the shared High Risk Pediatric Cancer Clinic at Intermountain Healthcare's Primary Children's Hospital and University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute. He said that while pharmaceutical companies take several years to develop potential new drugs, elephants have been working on this one for more than 55 million years.

"They've really designed the perfect cancer-fighting drug," Schiffman said.

Elephants, born at 300 pounds after 22 months of gestation, typically weigh around 10,000 pounds in adulthood. And they can live up to 70 years.

That's a lot of cellular growth, said Schiffman, adding that based on that amount of cellular replication alone, the odds of elephants getting cancer are high. Yet cancer is actually very rare in elephants — less than 5 percent ever get the life-threatening disease.

"But, extinction isn't a good strategy for survival," he said. So, throughout centuries, elephants have somehow created an elephant-specific antidote for cancer, a tumor-suppressing protein called p53, which appears about 40 times throughout their DNA.

Humans only have two copies of p53, not enough to debilitate tumors on their own. But what Schiffman's lab, and other collaborating labs throughout the country and in Israel, have found, is that p53 from elephants is working at killing cancer cells in mice and human tumor samples.

And the anti-cancer protein is now being made synthetically, allowing the unprecedented research to move forward without subjecting elephants to more invasive medical research.

"We're looking for a world with more elephants and less cancer," Schiffman said, adding that "one person with cancer is too many."

Schiffman, a Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, said it is "thrilling to be able to provide this hope to patients and their families."

While the research is moving quickly, the Huntsman labs need at least $2 million in funding to continue the push to human trials, which, following successful animal trials, could happen in three to five years.

"We can't do it alone," Schiffman said, adding that partnerships with Utah's Hogle Zoo and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus through the years have been invaluable.

The discovery of p53 came about when scientists started looking at different animals that weren't getting cancer as often as humans. Schiffman said as an oncologist, he'd much rather prevent than treat disease.

And he's hoping that the cancer-fighting elephant protein will at least decrease the amount of cancer in the world, as half of all men and a third of all women are projected to get cancer in their lifetimes, according the National Cancer Institute. The organization reported nearly 600,000 deaths from cancer in the United States in 2016.

Schiffman said p53 has been working in various types of samples in the lab, including lung, breast, bone, colon, prostate and brain cancers from patients who have had tumors removed and have opted into research studies.

"Everywhere we're seeing p53, we're seeing those cancer cells die," he said. "It's one of the most thrilling experiences I've had in my career in medicine."

Schiffman, however, is careful not to "overpromise," saying a cure hasn't been found for cancer, only that "elephants have found the cure for cancer in elephants."

"We just want to translate this ability to humans," he said.