How Whales Avoid Cancer, and Why It Matters for Humans

How Whales Avoid Cancer, and Why It Matters for Humans

Their DNA holds the keys to cancer suppression and a long life without the disease.

Ocean life can be fascinating. Some creatures exist below in apparent constant darkness, sporting faces that resemble the ghouls and monstrosities of horror movies.

Others hang out on the other end of the spectrum, with jaw-dropping beauty.  

Whales may lie somewhere in between, photogenically, depending on who you speak to. When it comes to long term health in a good environment however, they score high.

Researchers from Arizona State University have found that whales, dolphins and porpoises all harbor genomes that make them rather impervious to cancer.

It’s a strange combination. So far, scientists have found that age and weight are both risk factors in cancer. As you get older, and the heavier you are, your chances of developing cancer increase. Since whales are so huge and they live a long time, it should follow that they usually develop a lot of cancer.

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Somehow, however, they tend to avoid it.

Researchers have found that whales and other creatures such as elephants, have what are called ‘cancer suppression mechanisms”.

Some parts of the whale genome have evolved faster throughout history than they did in other mammals. This includes areas that are essential for limiting cancer such as those that control cell cycle, cell proliferation and DNA repair. Science tells us that in humans, many of these genes are mutated, leading to more cancer.  But not in whales. 

Almost magically, the whale genome has also evolved to contain many duplications in tumor suppressor genes.

Researchers say they’re hopeful that new cancer treatments can evolve from their studies. It’s possible that future treatments could involve using the whale version of a protein- one that can stop cells increasing rapidly in number- to develop drugs that shrink tumors in humans.

The answers lie in nature, that much is evident. We just need to keep looking.

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