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Cancer risk

Carnivores are more prone to cancer

A new study on cancer risk across mammals in zoos shows. Researchers also find that ungulates appear resistant to the disease. Could they hold clues to natural, non-toxic cancer treatments for humans?

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 12/22/2021

We tend to talk about cancer as a human disease. While it is true that cancer seriously affects our species, we can no longer disregard the fact that other animals face this disease, just like us. Not just our pets, but wild animals too.

Nonetheless, to what extent animals are exposed to cancers and how often their health is affected by this disease has been little known so far.

This is not a surprise as in wild animals any serious illness will likely result in the untraceable death of the animal due to starvation or predation. Moreover, cancer is an age-associated disease, where old individuals are more prone to develop the disease. Consequently, the risk of cancer in wild animals, where age is rarely known, is difficult to estimate.

All mammals can get cancer

Using data on 191 species and 110,148 individual mammals under human care from the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) hosted by non-profit Species360, this research now demonstrates that cancer is a ubiquitous disease of mammals and it can emerge anywhere along the mammalian phylogeny.

The research also highlights that cancer risk is not uniformly distributed along the phylogeny of mammals. For instance, carnivores are particularly prone to be affected by cancer (e.g. over 25% of clouded leopards, bat-eared foxes and red wolfs die of cancer), while ungulates appear consistently highly resistant to this disease.

Diet and cancer risk

This research also tried to explore whether diet differences explain the observed phylogenetic pattern in cancer risk. The results indicate that consuming animals, especially mammalian prey, indeed increases cancer risk across mammals.

The authors argue that high cancer risk in carnivorous mammals might be related to their low microbiome diversity, limited physical exercise under human care, oncogenic viral infections or to other physiological aspects of carnivorous mammals.

Big body, big risk?

The study also addresses a fascinating evolutionary question. Tumours are diseases of mutational origin, and mutations usually arise during cell division. Consequently, animals with larger bodies and longer lifespans that have undergone more cell division are expected to have a higher risk of developing tumours.

This theory has been supported by several studies in humans, for example, where greater body size (height) is associated with a higher risk of cancer.

However, these correlations do not seem to hold across species, as an elephant and a mouse have a similar likelihood of developing cancer, even though their lifespans and body sizes differs by orders of magnitude. The discrepancy in the effect of body size and life expectancy on cancer risk is known as Peto’s paradox.

Our work highlights that cancer might represent a serious and significant threat to animal welfare

Fernando Colchero, associate professor

This research now provides proof that cancer risk is largely independent of body mass and life expectancy across mammals, providing thus unequivocal evidence for the validity of Peto’s paradox.

This result provides support for the claim that evolution has fashioned more and more efficient tumour suppressor mechanisms along the evolution of extended longevities and/or larger body sizes.

- Overall our work highlights that cancer might represent a serious and significant threat to animal welfare, that need considerable scientific attention, especially in the context of recent environmental changes caused by humans, says co-author Fernando Colchero from University of Southern Denmark, who is an expert in using mathematical and statistical methods to understand changes in animal and human populations.

What can we learn from cancer resistant mammals?

Moreover, a better understanding of cancer risk and resistance in various animal species can provide major advancements in the quest for natural anticancer defenses and could revolutionize cancer medicine.

For instance, studying species that are highly resistant to cancer, can provide basic information for the development of bio-mimetic natural cancer treatments, which, contrary to most cancer treatments are non-toxic to the host.

About the study

The study has been published in Nature.

Contributing authors from University of Southern Denmark are Fernando Colchero and Dalia A. Conde, Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Lead author and corresponding author is Orsolya Vincze, University of Montpellier. Contributing authors are Jean-Francois Lemaitre, Université Lyon 1; Samuel Pavard, Université de Paris; Margaux Bieuville, Université de Paris; Araxi O. Urrutia, Deakin University; Amy M. Boddy, University of California Santa Barbara Carlo C. Maley: Arizona State University; Frédéric Thomas, University of Montpellier; Mathieu Giraudeau, University of Montpellier.

Meet the researcher

Fernando Colchero is an associate professor at Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and Interdisciplinary Centre on Population Dynamics.


Editing was completed: 22.12.2021