POLK CITY, Fla. – They're going from entertaining thousands to potentially saving thousands. Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus retired its elephants in early May to a conservation center in Polk City, Florida. During the elephants' retirement, scientists will test the mammals' blood to see if it could lead to a cure for cancer.
Scientists have known for a long time that elephants rarely get cancer. If researchers can figure out why, and then duplicate those circumstances in humans, it could lead to the greatest cancer cure on Earth.
Stephen Payne with Feld Entertainment has worked with the elephants for many years.
"Elephants have a very low rate of cancer. It's about 5 percent, and you would think a 9,000 pound elephant with that many cellular divisions, just by chance that they would get cancer, but they rarely do," Payne said.
In human children alone there will be 16,000 new cancer cases this year.
The sheer size of the elephants should make them more likely to develop the disease, but Wendy Kiso, the director of conservation and research, explains why they're unique.
"Humans have two copies of a gene called the P 53 gene. We call it the guardian of the genome. It actually suppresses tumor formation," Kiso said. "So just imagine if one goes haywire or you're not born with the specific gene, you have a high incidence of cancer, but elephants they have 40 copies of this gene."
It not only protects them from getting cancer, it ensures the cancer rarely spreads if they do get it.
The conservation center doesn't need to draw any extra blood for the cancer research.
Handlers at the center were already taking samples from the elephants for research and to monitor their well-being. That same blood is now being looked at by Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric oncologist in Salt Lake City, who is trying to cure childhood cancer.
Schiffman is passionate about his work.
"We need to understand why those teenagers are getting cancer. What are their risks for getting cancer? Why? So that one day we can prevent cancer in children," explained Schiffman.
He said the partnership with the conservation center was what his research was missing.
The Center for Elephant Conservation is on 200 acres of land in Central Florida. It's home to the largest sustainable population of Asian elephants and the most successful breeding program in the Western Hemisphere, with 26 births to date.
Having so many pachyderms in one place gives scientists the unique ability to study the species and learn how to improve their health -- and now human health as well.
"When I first came to the Elephant Conservation Center I was blown away. Where else can you see so many elephants taken such good care of, all living together as one of the largest herds in North America?” said Schiffman. “For me, as a doctor trying to understand cancer, trying to learn from elephants, this was amazing. This was exactly what my research needed.”
Kiso also believes that together their work could lead to a cure.
"I don't know what that magic pill will be: if it's a powder or a protein shake or literally a pill. So, that's one of the questions that we'll be looking into,” explained Kiso. “But first, we have to figure out which variety of the P 53 gene is the most effective. That's one thing that we would have to figure out: whether it's an annual pill, daily vitamin so-to-speak, or whether it's to prevent cancer or could treat cancer. All of the above are the questions that we have."
Kiso said there's no timeline on when they expect answers to those questions, but because elephants can live into their 70s, scientists have many years to research and learn from this mammal -- that almost never gets cancer.
In the meantime, the conservation center and the handlers are also helping keep this species alive.
"The handlers are with them every day. As you noticed, they walk them back and forth, so they either make sure they exercise properly or get good nutrition,” explained Kiso. “Some of the older elephants, we grind their food to make sure they're taking in good food. Also, for the water, we provide them buckets of water in the morning. In the afternoon, we bathe them and we literally look at the elephants inch by inch every day.”