Whales, dolphins and porpoises are much better at fighting cancer than we are, and now we might be closer to understanding why cetaceans can do this.
Generally speaking, cetaceans are the most long-lived mammals, with some whale species reaching their 200th birthday. Why this should be possible is a mystery given that their size means their bodies contain far more cells than the human body does.
“If you have more cells, that means that the risk that one of those cells… becomes cancerous increases,” says Daniela Tejada-Martinez at the Austral University of Chile. “So, if you are big or live longer, you have thousands and millions of cells that could become harmful.”
Instead, cetaceans have much lower rates of cancer than most other mammals, including humans. This situation is known as Peto’s paradox.
When researching how tumors grow in mice, epidemiologist Richard Peto found a correlation between time and cancer and called it Peto’s Paradox. Peto found that the length of exposure to the carcinogen benzpyrene was related to the risk of cancer development.
He later applied body mass to the equation as he asked why, considering the fact that humans have 1000 times more cells and live 30 times longer than rodents, the two animals do not have significantly different cancer threats.
“It’s not like we’re going to take whale genes and implant them into humans and make them cancer resistant. However, if you can recognize the genes that play a part in tumor suppression in other species and find out what they’re doing, you may be able to produce a medicine that acts similarly in humans.”
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