Could elephants hold the key to cure cancer?

It's a rare sight nestled in Polk County -- a herd of Asian elephants.

Some are born here, some retire here; all are part of a grand plan to save the species.

"Asian elephants are extremely endangered, there are only about 40,000 in the world," says Dr. Dennis Schmitt, chair of Vet Care and Director of Research for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation.

We got an exclusive tour of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation. There are 29 elephants from 2 to 69 years old.

"It's a low-key, low-tech approach, but scientists from North America and Asian countries come here as well to see how we care for and do research," says Schmitt.

Some of that research is done in tanks. Each keeps genetic material intact for thousands of years.

Scientists like Dr. Wendy Kiso study the samples to help with reproduction of the species.

"We can pick and choose which bull we want to use so for long-term propagation of the species we're choosing different genetics to make sure they remain genetically healthy."

The research being done here at CEC isn't just for the future of Asian elephants, it could be for the future of fighting cancer, in humans.

It's the key Dr. Joshua Schiffman has been looking for his whole life. As a pediatrician, researcher and cancer survivor, he's spent his career trying to figure out why children get cancer.

"These elephants have evolved over tens of millions of years and have figured out how not to get cancer, and what can we learn from them that evolution has already figured out," says Schiffman who works at the Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City and at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

He's been working over the last year with Feld Entertainment and Ringling Brothers, taking blood samples from elephants like Alana.

"We're able to take it into the lab and compare the genetics of elephants to try and understand, how is this elephant blood different from blood of children and families who get cancer."

What they hope to find, is how to create a medicine that would mimic the effects of what elephants are already doing.

"Is there a pill maybe that these kids could take that would prevent them from one day developing their cancer that they may be at high risk for that works in the same way that the elephants do it naturally," says Schiffman.

While there are still many answers to find, knowing it could be here, on these 200 acres of land, keeps him looking.

"Knowing that the answer is there, and with enough time, effort, research, funding, and dedication, we will get to that answer."


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