Every day our DNA mutates hundreds of thousands, if not millions of times. Mutations which can lead to cancer cells, according to Dr. Joshua Schiffman, an investigator at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. So how do we not get cancer on a daily basis? Our immune system detects and deals with the mutations. A “stopwatch” in the mutated cell begins, and if the mutation is not fixed in the allowed time by the cell itself, the cell will be killed to prevent further mistakes in future cells.

When the immune system fails to fix or kill the precancerous cell, it will begin to uncontrollably divide and potentially take over an organ. One mechanism in particular that can help prevent cellular organ domination comes from the p53 gene, commonly referred to as the “Guardian of the Genome.” If there’s a mistake in the DNA sequencing, p53 helps to fix it –– think genetic spell check. 

Dr. Vincent Lynch, assistant professor of Human Genetics and Organismal Biology at the University of Chicago, studied the p53 gene in a surprising and massive population. The UIC geneticist began with the skin cells of Asian and African elephants. Dr. Schiffman pursued the mystery behind elephant p53 as well. 

What both men found is that elephants have 40 copies of p53, whereas humans only have two. This difference may hold the key to why only 3% of elephants get cancer as opposed to 40% of humans.

What both men uncovered is elephants have around 40 copies of p53, whereas humans only have two. This difference may hold the key to why only 3% of elephants get cancer as opposed to 40% of humans. The doctors see the potential for p53 to be utilized to produce a new medicine to treat cancer in humans. It might even be possible to use it as a preventative measure in the near future. 

Guests:

  • Dr. Joshua Schiffman, Professor of Pediatrics, University of Utah and investigator, Huntsman Cancer Institute
  • Dr. Vincent Lynch, Assistant Professor of Human Genetics and Organismal Biology, University of Chicago

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Posted by:Producer

MTC is the producer of Viewpoints and Radio Health Journal - celebrating 25 years of award-winning public affairs radio reaching 6 million listeners each week.

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