Of elephants, mice and men

Over the past few weeks, I was busy reviewing medical news regarding topics I’m passionate about and can’t resist to write about them; cancer, supplements and elephants.

What? Elephants? Besides seeing them in the zoo with my kids I have paid very little attention to them until I heard they don’t get cancer.

After my surprise that researchers were looking at this, I started to consider the findings in the context of what we know in humans; cancer tend to occur more frequently in aging populations, such as sea turtles, that given a long life span and exposure to warmer waters make this cute animal prone to a not so cute virus and a specific kind of cancer. So maybe elephants have a very short life and no time to develop cancer, but google was quick to reply that the average lifespan of an elephant is 60 years.

Interestingly, the reason that scientists found for elephants not to develop cancer was a complete surprise. It turns out that the pachyderm (a very large mammal) have several (and I mean many) copies of genes that certain species, including us, use to repair damage or mistakes that happen in the chromosomes (our library of genes) while the cells divide and reproduce. This “baby” cell with a typographical error that does not get fixed is the basis of cancer. As the cell keeps dividing with the same and even further mistakes they become atypical and then they become cancer cells. We, humans, have a single copy of that repair gene.

This was fascinating and connected to our second headline this week that showed (not to my surprise unlike the previous one) that high dose of supplements with antioxidants promote cancer cells to grow outside of the original site faster (metastasis) in a melanoma mice study. The reason, was not shocking and connected to the elephants. We have always known that heavy antioxidants are great if you want to age gracefully, but for certain, it has never been purported to be a protection for cancer, therefore gracefully but maybe not longer. In the past, several studies such as the CARET study showed that smokers that take high dose of preformed vitamin A tend to develop more (yes it is not a typo) lung cancer than smokers who do not take this antioxidant. Unlike Dumbo the elephant, we do not have many copies of those genes that repair cells, as the cells divide with occasional mistakes, antioxidants give them a survival advantage to keep dividing and growing and shortly after, spread and take over the host and then his normal cells.

But wait, as they say on television ads, there is more! Our last set of news came from a mainstream human clinical trial that we were eagerly awaiting regarding prevention of colon cancer producing polyps with supplementation of vitamin D and calcium. The study was negative! No risk reduction of developing polyps by supplementing with these two substances. The concern with this study, unlike the prior two that I just mentioned, is that many might over read what I’m writing to say that calcium and vitamin D are useless and might even be harmful, which is certainly not the case. If indeed the prevention of polyps did not occur, the use of calcium and vitamin D are quite important for many other reasons such as bone health, and you have to realize that our sun-harnessing potential for vitamin D is almost null after the age of 35, as well as the calcium levels being deficient due to dietary intake, hormones to name a few.

All that being said my message for the week is that unless we have a big set of ears, a trunk, very big feet and multiple copies of the p53 gene we should avoid high antioxidant doses and elect to age naturally, but also to realize that data published about a supplement for a specific purpose only applies to that subject but it might be beneficial for some other reasons. So always try to balance what supplements you take with the rational to use them.

I can only hope to keep learning all this interesting facts, and even if certain scientific data might not make sense to us, remember that Sir William Osler MD said in the early 1900s “who are we to tell cancer what to do?”

Dr. Mike Cusnir









Dr. Mike Cusnir
Co-Director, Gastrointestinal Malignancies

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