Whales Don't Develop Cancer And Here’s Why We Should Look Into This

Whales are pretty amazing animals. As the world’s largest mammals, these gentle giants roam the sea in search of krill or plankton to eat or to mate, and periodically come up to the surface to push water out of their head and take in some air. But besides being one of the biggest animals currently living on our planet, did you know that whales also have another surprising characteristic that you wouldn’t expect at all?

In general, the risk of cancer increases as a human being gains weight and ages, and whales simply do not experience this at all. In fact, despite being mammals like us, these gentle giants are some of the few animals that are least likely to develop cancer. As a result, researchers sought to find out what’s behind this and how it can be relevant to human cancer research.

Leading disease

As one of the world’s deadliest diseases, cancer starts when cells mutate abnormally, causing them to behave differently and disrupting the natural flow of the body. Although common to humans, there have also been reported cases of it in dogs, cats and other animals.

But why don’t whales develop cancer?

Well, according to the findings published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, whales have several tumor-suppressing genes in their bodies, while us humans only have one copy of it. The genes help stop cancer from growing or developing in the first place.

Furthermore, due to their size and weight, their “housekeeping genes” had to evolve much faster in order to keep up with the species. Whales are also known to have slower mutation rates.

According to the study authors, this provides a new perspective on cancer, particularly one that views it as a common threat that’s not without a solution.

"Our goal is not only to get nature to inform us about better cancer therapies, but to give the public a new perspective of cancer. The fact that whales and elephants evolved to beat cancer, and that dinosaurs suffered from it as well, suggests that cancer has been a selective pressure across many millions of years of evolution, and it has always been with us,” lead study author Marc Tollis Ph.D.,  an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University, said.

whale Pictured: A whale jumping out of the water. Photo courtesy of Kate Stafford/Cell Reports 2015