What does an elephant have to do with cancer research?


According to Joshua Schiffman, MD, a cancer researcher at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), the answer is in the elephant’s genes—specifically, one gene called P53. Humans also have this gene, and earlier research shows that it helps keep us safe from cancer.

Most humans have two copies of the P53 gene, but some are missing a copy. Dr. Schiffman says it’s the missing copy that puts people at risk for cancer. “With only one copy left of the P53 gene, they have a 100 percent lifetime risk of cancer,” he says. “We’ve spent many years focusing research on this gene.”

Several years ago, Dr. Schiffman attended a conference where he learned that elephants almost never develop cancer. He also learned elephants have 40 copies of the P53, compared to the standard two in humans.

He was intrigued and took this information back to HCI. He began working with Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City to test elephant’s blood already being drawn to check the animal’s health. What his team found is “absolutely amazing,” says Dr. Schiffman. “The extra copies of the elephant P53 seem to protect the cells from cancer by eliminating any type of cell that develops any type of mutation that could go on to become cancer.”

His team is now working with collaborators all over the world, including The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, to develop a medicine based on the P53 gene. “One day, maybe we can start to protect people from cancer just the way that evolution has protected elephants from cancer after 55 million years,” explains Dr. Schiffman.

Dr. Schiffman says the research is still in early stages, but preliminary tests have shown promise in treating cancer cells.

For him, the fight against cancer is personal. Dr. Schiffman was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 15, and says he knew then that he wanted to be a doctor and help find a cure for cancer. “I've always been very motivated to understand who gets cancer and why did I get cancer,” he says, “But more importantly, what can we do about it? To know what we're doing now with the elephants, to try to help other kids with cancer, is just an amazing feeling.”

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit