ELLENTON -- The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has entertained children for generations.
The legendary entertainers are now trying to help find a cure for childhood cancers through its renowned herd of elephants.
Feld Entertainment of Ellenton, parent company of Ringling Bros., has formed a partnership with the Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah and several other groups in studying the low incidence of cancer in elephants, which, as any circus fan knows, are among Ringling's greatest resources.
The Felds have announced all elephants are going off the road in 2018, ending a long history of performing before crowds. Now, the pachyderms may provide an even greater service.
Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive officer of Feld Entertainment, talked about his company's new role as a children's cancer fighter during a Town Hall event Thursday afternoon attended by 400 employees and broadcast to roughly 1,200 Feld associates around the world from Feld's Ellenton headquarters.
"The first thing I thought when they said that elephants could hold the key to the cure of cancer was this is the craziest idea I have ever heard of," Feld said.
Utah-based pediatric oncologist Joshua Schiffman got the idea to study elephants after he took his children to the zoo about three years ago, Feld said.
Schiffman had heard elephants rarely develop cancer and, at the zoo, he pondered the possible
"They have 100 times as many cells as people, so they should be 100 times more likely to have a cell slip into a cancerous state over their long life span,"
Elephants should be extinct, all dead due to cancer, Schiffman reasoned.
"Yet, analysis of a database of elephant deaths estimates cancer mortality of less than 5 percent compared with 11 to 25 percent in people," Schiffman said.
Feld permitted Schiffman and other scientists to draw blood from Ringling's herd of Asian elephants at its 20-year-old Center for Elephant Conservation near Orlando, Feld said.
Through the blood, researchers discovered elephants have at least 40 copies of a cell called p53, a major tumor suppressor.
"We believe it's because of these extra copies of p53 that elephants rarely die of cancer," Schiffman said.
Humans have only two p53 tumor suppressors, one from each parent, Schiffman said.
If one of the two human p53 cells is damaged, the chance for cancer becomes great, Schiffman added.
"We want to make it clear today that we have not discovered the cure for cancer," said Schiffman, who published his findings recently in the Journal of American Medical Association. "What we have discovered is that elephants have found a cure for cancer in elephants."
Dr. Wendy Kiso, who helps with elephant husbandry at the Center for Elephant Conservation, is immersed in helping her fellow scientists in cancer research, Feld said.
"What can be more exciting than preserving elephants while finding a cure for cancer?" Kiso asked.
Schiffman told the crowd it will be three to five years before a drug based on the elephant research will reach clinical trials.
"You can't drink the elephant blood and get more p53 cells," Kiso told the crowd. "So don't poach our elephants."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.