The circus elephants have moved on.
You won’t see them anymore at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey shows, like the one in residence at Kansas City’s Sprint Center through Sunday.
Bowing to years of protests by animal rights activists and changing public sentiment about how animals are used for entertainment, Ringling Bros. ended its 145-year-tradition of using elephants under the big top.
The iconic pachyderms made their last appearances in May and moved south to retirement at Ringling’s 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Fla.
But they have a new gig while they laze about under the Florida sun: Helping Utah pediatric oncologist Joshua Schiffman find a new way to treat cancer in humans.
Schiffman is the director of the pediatric cancer genetics clinic at Intermountain Primary Children’s Medical Center and the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
In 2010 he began studying elephant DNA — first from zoo elephants — to figure out why elephants rarely get cancer and whether that answer can somehow lead to new cancer treatments for humans.
“We think with enough support and funding that maybe one day in the next few years we’ll be able to get this research far enough along that we can test it on people,” Schiffman said in an interview this week. “I’m always careful to say we haven’t discovered a cure for cancer. As an oncologist, I never want to over promise and under deliver.”
With the help of the Ringling elephants, Schiffman has waged war on a disease that once invaded his own body. He grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of an oncologist, and was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma when he was 15. Radiation therapy saved his life.
In 2008 he began working at the University of Utah, researching genetic predisposition to cancer and taking care of pediatric cancer patients. His first “light bulb moment” regarding what the animal kingdom could contribute to cancer research came when his beloved dog, Rhody, a Bernese mountain dog, died in 2010.
The irony was not lost on him. An oncologist’s dog died of cancer. Schiffman became very focused on why some breeds seemed more genetically predisposed to cancer than others.
A Newsweek story about Schiffman’s research, which described him as “irrepressibly optimistic,” details how he was still healing from Rhody’s death when he attended a conference on genetics in Washington, D.C.
“There, he saw a poster for a paper on the genetic risk of Bernese mountain dogs for cancer,” Newsweek notes.
“He began, at once, to interrogate the poor graduate student presenting the research, explaining why he had to get in touch with the study’s authors (Schiffman’s approach to science can be described as accost-and-collaborate). Not only had his Bernese died of cancer, but he was studying genetic predisposition to cancer, albeit in humans.”
In the summer of 2012, Schiffman attended another conference about evolutionary medicine and the study of cancer in different species. It was the first time he heard that elephants almost never get cancer.
“And this was a surprise to hear,” he said.
When it comes to cancer, elephants kind of defy logic. The huge animals have 100 times the number of cells that humans have — a lot more chances, then, for those cells to mutate into cancer. But less than 5 percent of elephants die of cancer.
Humans and elephants both have a gene called p53, considered one of the most important mechanisms for preventing cancer, which contains a cancer-suppressing protein. Most humans have two copies of p53. Elephants have 40 copies of it.
“Gee, maybe instead of looking at who’s getting more cancer, we should focus on who’s getting less cancer,” Schiffman thought. “And then learn if there is a way to apply that to people.”
But, uh, how do you study that, he wondered? And who had elephants that he could borrow DNA from?
“I went to medical school but where was I going to get enough elephant blood?” he said.
The answer came a few weeks later when he and his wife took their three children to the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City.
During a presentation about the elephants, zoo employee Eric Peterson described how zookeepers take regular blood samples from the elephants to check their health. Peterson invited visitors to ask him questions after the presentation, and Schiffman was quick to take him up on that.
“Of course I went up up and told him that I needed blood to understand if these extra genes were protecting the elephants from cancer,” he said. “Luckily he didn’t call security, although later he told me he was thinking about it.”
So the zoo, which is only five minutes away from Schiffman’s research lab, became the first supplier of elephant blood for his research team.
In the summer of 2013, Schiffman gave a presentation about his team’s work at an international elephant research symposium. When he got back to his office in Utah, he got a phone call from Dennis Schmitt, the head veterinarian for Ringling Bros.
Schmitt and Wendy Kiso, director of conservation and research at Ringling’s elephant center in Florida, had heard him speak at the conference about how he needed a diverse gene pool for his studies.
Schmitt had an offer: You need elephants, we have elephants — the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere that just happened to be living at the conservation center in Florida.
“They explained that, like the zoo, they draw blood from the elephants on a routine basis, just as part of basic elephant husbandry,” Schiffman said.
The relationship struck under the big top has become a full-on commitment to cancer research by the Feld family, owners of Feld Entertainment Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros., which is donating $10,000 to local children’s hospitals and treatment centers in 50 cities the circus is visiting.
Schiffman and his team have found that in elephants, p53 kills cells with damaged DNA more quickly than it does in humans.
“Instead of trying to repair themselves, the elephant cells, many of them, all went on to cell death, to this cell suicide, or what we call apoptosis,” Schiffman told NPR earlier this year.
“It’s as if these elephant cells have said, ‘well, it’s much safer, much better strategy to just kill the cell and start over.’ If we do that, there’s no way that that cell can go on to become cancer, and that was an aha moment for us in the lab. We’re trying to learn how to get kids better with cancer without making them sick.”
Schiffman and his collaborators published their research findings last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They have their skeptics, one of whom told Newsweek, “it’s going to be quite a long time before there's any solid application. If ever.”
Schiffman brushes aside comments like that.
“That’s why I’m always clear to say we haven’t found the cure for cancer. But what I am saying is we’ll never know unless we try,” he said. “That’s how you move the field of science forward.”
He hopes at some point their work will lead to a new treatment of cancer in humans. Maybe it will be a compound that replicates elephant p53. But first they have to nail down exactly how it works.
“So my goal would be within the next three to five years to see if we can actually get a medicine that works in people,” he said. “I would say that it’s really about hope. If I didn’t believe that there was a chance of it working I wouldn’t spend all this time working on it.
“I don’t know if it’s going to work. But I also know I’ll never know unless I try.”