Saturday, May 25, 2024

Saving the Whales Can Also Help Us Beat Cancer


Environmentalists have been working to protect whales for decades. These giants play critical roles in ocean ecosystems. And, according to new research, they may also hold secrets in helping us beat cancer, too.

It’s a sad truth that as we age, our risk of developing cancer increases. In fact, according to Cancer Research U.K., adults between the ages of 50 and 74 account for more than half of all new cancer cases every year, while more than a third come from people aged 74 and over.

The reason behind this is relatively straightforward. “Our cells contain a unique code, our DNA, that carries a set of instructions for everything a cell needs to work properly,” explains Cancer Research. “Cells replicate themselves and their DNA to keep the body healthy. But this replication isn’t perfect. Errors, known as mutations, occur and build up over time. If too many build up, the cell becomes faulty, and can lead to a normal cell becoming cancerous if it grows uncontrollably.”

It’s not only human cells that do this. Cancer has been identified in many animals, including dogs, cats, rats, mice, birds, fish, deer, sea turtles, and more. But not all living creatures get cancer. In fact, research suggests that bowhead whales, a species of baleen whale that lives in the Arctic, can evade the disease. So, while there are many reasons why we need to protect whales — could improving our own mortality be on the list, too?

Could studying whales help humans live longer?

According to a study published last year from the University of Rochester, arctic bowhead whales may be able to evade cancer due to a unique, “highly specialized mechanism” that protects their DNA.

This ability to efficiently repair DNA may have enabled some bowhead whales, which can grow to around 80 tonnes, to live for more than two centuries. In fact, the oldest known mammal on earth is a bowhead whale — estimated to be around 211 years old. To put that in context, that means the whale was born before Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne.

humpback whales
Photo courtesy Vivek Kumar

According to the researchers, learning more about these animals could help scientists figure out future longevity mechanisms for humans, but also, it could help with things like surgery and transplant recovery.

“By studying a mammal capable of maintaining its health and avoiding death from cancer for over two centuries, we are offered a unique glimpse behind the curtain of a global evolutionary experiment that tested more mechanisms affecting cancer and aging than humans could ever hope to approach,” scientists wrote in the study.

The research builds on previous studies that looked at whales and cancer. In 2019, another research team analyzed skin samples from whales, only this time, they examined humpbacks, not bowheads. The findings suggested that their cancer-evading ability may come down to evolution, and the duplication of “tumor-suppressing genes” in whales. 

“This suggests that whales are unique among mammals, in that in order to evolve their gigantic sizes, these important ‘housekeeping’ genes, which are evolutionarily conserved and normally prevent cancer, had to keep up in order to maintain the species’ fitness,” explained Marc Tollis, Ph.D., one of the researchers on the study, to Medical News Today.

Health aside, it’s still critical to protect whales

Whales and their remarkable ability to evade cancer will likely be studied by scientists for years to come — but only if they continue to stick around.

Unfortunately, like many other whale species, some populations of humpbacks and bowheads are considered to be endangered. “[Bowheads] have traditionally been hunted by commercial whalers until the last century for oil, meat, and baleen,” notes WWF. And like all whales, bowheads and humpbacks are also at risk from entanglement in fishing gear, as well as collisions with ships and other vessels, too. 

humpback breach
Whales are critical for ocean health. | Photo courtesy Jon Eckert

But, of course, while the new findings are certainly intriguing, whales don’t just exist to help humans. They are sentient creatures in their own right, and they also play a key role in ocean ecosystems. Whales are at the top of the food chain, which means they help to keep many other populations healthy and balanced.

And they’re also key for the climate. During their very (very) long lifetimes, whales accumulate carbon, and when they die, they sink to the seabed, taking all of the carbon with them, preventing it from being emitted into the atmosphere. In fact, some research suggests that whale falls may sequester around 62,000 tonnes of carbon every year.

“Our hope is that [whale research] may change people’s relationship with [cancer], which can be painful and personal,” said Tollis back in 2019. “[But] it also helps provide even better appreciation for biodiversity. In our current, sixth, mass extinction, we need all the reasons for conservation that we can get.”

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