Ringling Circus Elephants Becoming Lab Rats?

Ringling's last performances with their famous string of pachyderms is drawing to a close. The elephants will officially retire by May 1, due in part to public outcry about inhumane conditions. The animals were forced to travel long, weary road miles in cramped quarters, were allegedly abused by caretakers, and deprived of simple elephant pleasures such as a good roll and flinging dust.

But what marks the end of an era for the circus marks a whole new career for elephants.

Ringling Brothers has teamed up with a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Joshua Schiffman, from Salt Lake City, who has stumbled into a fascination with the blood of elephants.

CBS News reports that Dr. Schiffman was visiting the Hogle Zoo in 2012 when he had a revelation. Schiffman had been contemplating a scientific question called Peto's Paradox, about why large animals get cancer at lower rates than smaller ones. A mere 4.8 percent of elephant deaths are cancer-related, compared to 11 percent to 25 percent in humans.

Zoo life is not considered ideal for most elephants, as the Inquisitr described in a recent story about a pachyderm named Lucky. But that day at the Hogle Zoo, in learning that an elephant circulates blood by fanning itself with its ears, the doctor said "a light bulb went off." He approached the zoo about getting some samples of elephant blood to study.

The magic potion lies in the DNA of an elephant, within a gene called TP53. This "guardian of the genome," as researchers call it, has the ability to manufacture a protein that can suppress tumors.

In elephants, these TP53 cells apparently are in such ample supply that there are plenty to spare. (About 20, to a human's one solitary TP53 gene. Elephants also have about 38 additional modified copies of the gene, compared to a human's two copies.) When the cells were damaged with radiation, Schiffman expected them to begin the process of repair. But they didn't. The damaged cells simply died, leaving the heavy lifting to the host of remaining, healthy cells. This acted as a sort of insurance policy against allowing damaged cells to mutate into something evil.

Schiffman was very impressed.
"It makes tremendous sense — the best way to prevent cancer in a cell is to eliminate it entirely."
Elephants have so many more cells than humans (about 100 to one), that they can afford to lose more. And they do. Elephant cells die much faster than human cells.

"All this leads us to conclude that these extra copies of TP53 may have evolved to protect elephants from cancer," Schiffman told the LA Times. "And I say 'may' because the only way to know for sure is to build an elephant that has no copies of TP53 and see if it's more vulnerable to cancer."

"Build an elephant." That sounds, well, more than a little creepy. And maybe unethical.

But he admits that while it could be done with mice, it's "not going to happen" with elephants.


Is it possible that this information might be able to help people with cancer? Schiffman can think of two potential courses of action. One is to create a drug that acts like TP53. The second alternative may be to inject precancerous cells with TP53 genes.

As the elephants march out of the circus ring one last time, Ringling has determined that the show will go on. As their Center for Elephant Conservation explains, "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."

The fund will contribute $1 million to children's cancer research. The circus will perform, sans elephants, and the next 50 cities' performances will garner $10,000 for the local children's treatment center, with that amount to be matched for research by the Children's Fund.

And the elephants?

In this vivid story by National Geographic, writer Susan Ager describes Ringling's Florida Center for Elephant Conservation.

"Ringling's spread is flat and treeless except for the bamboo and other vegetation planted in the past two decades and fed to the animals as roughage."
Males are kept separately, and handled with extreme caution, as they can be dangerous.The facility hosts about 40 elephants on a 200-acre spread. They are brought indoors and chained at night. Kenneth Feld, CEO of the Center for Elephant Conservation, does not describe it as a sanctuary.
"Places that say they are sanctuaries manage to extinction. We manage for survival of the species."
Feld says that he wants to keep breeding elephants for two reasons. One is to be able to show them to tourists. His second reason pertains to Joshua Schiffman's cancer research. He describes it as "potentially the greatest thing ever in my life, and may be the greatest thing ever in everyone's life."

For the elephants, the greatest thing may be that they finally get to lie down and take a dust bath.

[Image via Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock]