Do elephants hold the key to curing cancer?

More than two-dozen elephants have been born at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' Center for Elephant Conservation since it opened in 1995. Courtesy of Feld Entertainment
More than two-dozen elephants have been born at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' Center for Elephant Conservation since it opened in 1995. Courtesy of Feld Entertainment

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — No longer used in the circus act, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ elephants will take on a new starring role: As key components in research that aims to one day prevent cancer.

Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric oncologist at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a Brown University graduate, is heading a project that asks two key questions: Why don’t elephants get cancer, and what can be learned from that to keep the disease from developing in humans?

Schiffman, raised in Providence, began his work with elephants by chance. A graduate of both Brown and Brown’s Alpert Medical School, his career took him to Salt Lake City in 2008.

“I moved here to start my own lab,” says Schiffman, who is also an investigator at the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. “I switched my focus from taking care of patients to really trying to understand how can I impact patients by working in the lab.”

Fighting cancer is ingrained in Schiffman, 42, who successfully underwent treatment for pediatric cancer while a student at Classical High School. He also saw first-hand the care that his father, Dr. Fred J. Schiffman, who has been a hematologist/oncologist at Brown and Lifespan for decades, provides.

Dr. Joshua Schiffman shows his work to Juliette Feld and Kenneth Feld of Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, in Schiffman's lab at the Hunstman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. Courtesy of Feld Entertainment
Dr. Joshua Schiffman shows his work to Juliette Feld and Kenneth Feld of Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, in Schiffman’s lab at the Hunstman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. Courtesy of Feld Entertainment

“If a patient calls, you go,” Joshua Schiffman says. “I grew up in that environment.”

As part of his work in the lab, Schiffman attended a conference in 2012 that would be a turning point in his research.

At a lecture, “[The speaker] explains that elephants are so large — they are 100 times the size of people — with 100 times as many cells. With that many cells dividing over and over again, for so many decades, just by chance alone all elephants should develop cancer. But they don’t, they almost never get cancer,” Schiffman recalled. In comparison, he says, half of all men, and a third of all women, will get cancer in their lifetimes.

The logic made sense, he says. To keep from becoming extinct, “[Elephants] must have evolved some way to protect themselves from cancer.”

Schiffman was intrigued by the idea. An animal lover, he had considered the link between animals and cancer before, when his beloved Bernese mountain dog Rhody died of sarcoma.

Excited at the prospect, he approached the lecturer. “I said, ‘What if we get elephant blood, and I test it in my lab'” and compare it to that of human patients with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, a rare disorder that greatly increases the risk of developing multiple cancers.

A great idea, they both agreed, but what was missing was a way to get elephant blood.

Back in Salt Lake City, a family outing changed the course of Schiffman’s research. At Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Schiffman, along with his wife and their three children, watched as African elephants performed in a show. Eric Peterson, the elephant keeper, explained that once a week, zoo staff would draw blood from the animals to make sure they are healthy.

It was a light-bulb moment for Schiffman. After the show, he approached Peterson with a question: Could he have access to that blood?

Schiffman’s application to the zoo’s scientific board was approved, and he and his team spent the next year using the blood in his research. Soon, he and Peterson submitted their findings to the International Elephant & Rhino Conservation & Research Symposium, a meeting of scientists and organizations dedicated to the conservation of African and Asian elephants. They presented their research to the group in 2013.

“A few weeks later, I’m back in the office and my phone rings.” The veterinarians at Ringling Brothers had heard about his work with African elephants, and were offering blood from their Asian elephants, the largest herd in North America, to see if his theories held true with them.

It was the start of “a phenomenal partnership and collaboration” that continues today. Now Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, also funds some of his research.

Some of the elephants at the Center for Elephant Conservation. When the last groups of circus elephants finish their final performances, they will be moved to the 200-acre preserve in Central Florida. Courtesy of Feld Entertainment
Some of the elephants at the Center for Elephant Conservation a 200-acre preserve in Central Florida. Courtesy of Feld Entertainment

“Seeing the potential and the passion that he brings to his research,” says Feld spokesman Stephen Payne, “we knew we had to be part of it.”

Both Schiffman and Payne point out that the animals are not being harmed. The circus elephants get their blood drawn as part of routine health checks, Schiffman says.

“When the blood is drawn, we get the extra sent to us,” he says. “There’s no poking or experimenting of any sort on these elephants.”

And Schiffman is drawing international attention with his research. His findings were published in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, in October, and the research has since been the subject of thousands of media reports, he says.

The day it was published, Feld also announced that it would donate $10,000 to the local children’s hospital in each city the circus stops in.

Feld has also established the Ringling Brothers Children’s Fund. “People who go to the circus, hear the story, they can contribute to the fund, which will then give that money for the continued elephant and cancer research,” Schiffman says.

A key to that research is his work with the P53 gene, which provides cancer protection. Humans should have two working copies, though they can get damaged, or, in the case of patients with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, one can be missing entirely. Elephants, meanwhile, have 40. For the past year, Schiffman has been working with chemist Avi Schroeder to figure out a way to deliver P53 to humans.

“We believe that with enough funding, awareness and support, within the next three years, we will have a drug based on elephant P53 to test on people.”

“We are not claiming that we have found the cure,” Schiffman says. “What we are claiming is we think we have figured out why elephants are not getting cancer. Now we have to take that discovery and apply it to people.”

“Whether it’s destiny, serendipity, fate — whatever you want to call it,” he says. “This began when I was 15 [and diagnosed with cancer]. It has taken me all around the world, from people to dogs to elephants, and it’s all winding back to Providence.

“This cultural moment is happening where I was diagnosed, where I learned to be a doctor, this is where I set my course … to maybe one day bring it back to children and families with cancer.”

For more information, go to Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation.

csimonelli@providencejournal.com

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On Twitter: @carriesimonelli