Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation is Working Toward a World with More Elephants and Less Cancer
Do Elephants Hold the Key to Cancer?
There is an exciting development in the field of medicine that, surprisingly, is connected to our elephant herd at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation® (CEC). We all know elephants are big – almost 100 times the size of people. Over their sixty-year life spans, they can grow up to 14,000 pounds. Because they have so many more cells than humans do, it would be logical to think that elephants would get more cancer. Despite their massive size, elephants almost never get cancer, with a mortality rate of less than 5 percent compared to up to 25 percent in humans.
Pediatric Oncologist Dr. Joshua Schiffman and the team from Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, the Department of Pediatrics and Huntsman Cancer Institute, all in Salt Lake City, Utah, are studying why there is such a low incidence of cancer in elephants, what makes this cancer resistance possible in elephants and not in humans, and how this may correlate to new treatments for pediatric cancers.
Instrumental to this research is elephant DNA, and Dr. Schiffman needed a diverse gene pool to effectively study to species. Because the CEC has the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere, the Feld Family felt compelled to help support this research. The incredible bond the staff has with these majestic animals, and the hands-on care provided at the Center for Elephant Conservation, allows the experts at the CEC to easily provide the blood samples Dr. Schiffman needs to further his research.
Dr. Dennis Schmitt, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Chair of Veterinary Services and Director of Research, and Dr. Wendy Kiso, Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation Research and Conservation Scientist, and other scientific collaborators on their team, have identified a key genetic link, called P53, that helps to protect both Asian and African elephants from developing cancer. The P53 gene’s job is to make sure that none of the cells in the body develop cancer. By studying the DNA in blood from elephants and the DNA in blood from patients with cancer, the team discovered that elephants have 40 copies of this P53 gene that attacks cancer while a healthy person has two copies.
Dr. Schiffman and colleagues studied the response of elephant blood to DNA-damaging agents and discovered that elephant cells undergo cell death more rapidly compared to human cells. Dr. Schiffman believes this may be why elephants develop less cancer than humans. The study’s full findings have been published in the Journal of American Medical Association.
Through this research, Dr. Schiffman is exploring the relationship of the extra P53 genes that elephants have that fight cancer to determine how they can be used to help children who have a higher chance of developing cancer. Dr. Schiffman is discovering information from studying blood samples from our elephants, which are taken routinely for regular health checkups, which may forever change the treatment of childhood cancer.
The Feld Family, owners of Feld Entertainment, Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® and the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, is forming the Ringling Bros. Children’s Fund™ as an element of their ongoing philanthropy through the Feld Family Foundation to support children’s charities. As part of the partnership with Primary Children’s Hospital, the Department of Pediatrics and Dr. Schiffman, the Ringling Bros. Children’s Fund and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will be donating more than $1 million to support cancer research and to care for children.
In the next 50 cities Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey visits, Ringling Bros. will donate $10,000 to a local children’s hospital or treatment center and the Ringling Bros. Children’s Fund will match each donation with an additional $10,000 donation to the Primary Children’s Hospital Foundation to support the Primary Children’s Hospital Pediatric Cancer Research Program. This program, which helped support the elephant research, focuses on novel approaches to prevention, diagnosis and improving the value of pediatric cancer care.
“Twenty years ago, we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation to preserve the endangered Asian elephant for future generations. Little did we know then that they may hold the key to cancer treatment,” said Kenneth Feld, Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment®. “The research Drs. Schiffman, Schmitt and Kiso are doing at the Center for Elephant for Conservation could be revolutionary in finding better treatments for pediatric cancer. We’re tremendously excited to be a part of it.”
“With this partnership between Ringling Bros. and Primary Children’s Hospital, we are now exploring how to apply these discoveries to children and families most at risk to develop cancer,” said Dr. Schiffman. “We want to use these lessons from nature to prevent, develop early recognition tools and treat cancer in humans,” said Dr. Joshua Schiffman.
“At Ringling Bros., we’re all about entertaining families and giving back to the communities where we perform every week. In addition to the financial contributions made by Feld Entertainment and the Ringling Bros. Children’s Fund, we will be bringing our performers directly to the hospitals to entertain families who aren’t able to make it to the show,” said Alana Feld, Executive Vice President of Feld Entertainment and producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.”
“Our family has always had such a strong passion and bond with the Asian elephant, and we are committed to the sustainability of this species,” said Nicole Feld, Executive Vice President of Feld Entertainment and producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. “It’s incredible to think that the unbelievable human interaction and elephant connection our Center for Elephant Conservation staff has with these animals allows us to easily provide the genetic material Dr. Schiffman needs to further his research.”
“Cancer affects so many families across this country, and unfortunately it’s becoming more common, especially among children. That’s why we’re so excited about this new funding effort and hopeful that Dr. Schiffman’s research will lead to a new treatment for pediatric cancer and beyond,” added Juliette Feld, Executive Vice President and
producer for Feld Entertainment.
Note: Research is ongoing. Check back for updates.