How Cancer Researchers are Learning Important Facts About Cancer From Dolphins

Just how similar are dolphins and humans?

In the fight for animal rights, revolutionary ideas such as granting human rights to apes and cetaceans or marine mammals like dolphins are currently hot topics for debates. Although there has not been any legislation towards granting humans rights to these animals yet, the proposal’s increasing number of supporters argue that it is about time we grant more protection, because they are not just animals, they are people too.

Well, kind of.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAResearch has shown that dolphins in particular are amazingly intelligent in that their intellectual capacity can be comparable to that of a human child. Dolphins trainers say that these creatures can understand up to 90 different American Sign Language Commands. Humans, however, do not yet understand one word of the dolphin’s language.  

Dolphins  have also been proven to have advanced methods of communication and can even transmit complex messages, are capable of self-awareness and according to Flipper’s popular trainer, Ric O’Barry, they can recognize themselves in the mirror too, one of the few mammals other than humans that have the ability to do so.  One academician, Thomas White of Loyola Marymount University, have even gone as far as labeling them “nonhuman persons”.

According to the article “What makes dolphins so smart?” from the Ultimate Guide to Dolphins, no less than Aristotle himself once said thus of the dolphins capacity to communicate, “The voice of the dolphin in the air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels, but have difficulties with the consonants.”

They get sick the same way we do too.

But not only are they almost as smart as humans, genetically we are similar as well.  Researchers at Texas A&M University have found that every dolphin chromosome has a chromosome that is correlated to a human chromosome.

The fact that dolphins are similar have not only prompted stronger protection and conservation efforts for these animals but it opens a whole new era for medical research as well. Medical researchers have found out that dolphins are also susceptible to the same diseases and viruses as humans. They can get diabetes and are vulnerable to papilloma virus which develops the main risk for cervical cancer.

But for some reason, their systems handle these better than ours.

What the similarities mean: Medical implications

In an article, ‘Dolphins Could Be Ideal Model to Study Human Cervical Cancer, Veterinarians Say’ published in the science daily, veterinarians reported that aside from humans, only dolphin got infection from some strains of the said virus.

“We discovered that dolphins get multiple infections of papilloma viruses, which are known to be linked with cervical cancer in women,” said Hendrik Nollens, a marine mammal biologist and clinical assistant professor at University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer that inflicts women worldwide and  according the the American Cancer Society some 11,070 women will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer this year and is the second most common cause of death from cancer in women worldwide.  Can you imagine that? Cervical cancer is the second most common cause of death in women worldwide. Quite a startling statistic. 

“Why do people develop the disease, but dolphins don’t? If we can figure out why, the human medical community might be very interested in how that information might be applied to human strategies for preventing the disease,” Nollens added.

Although these findings need further research, the similarities open the door for researchers to finding a cure for cervical cancer through the dolphins’ experience and a deeper study of how their genetic make-up prevents them from developing cancer despite getting infections from the virus.

A disturbing fact is that although Dolphins are extremely intelligent beings the Japanese government considers them as “pests” and issues permits to Japanese fisherman to brutally capture and slaughter up to 23,000 each year in Japan.  For more information about this horrendous practice you can watch the Academy Award Winning Movie The Cove. Those that are not slaughtered are sold for $150,000 to $300,000 a piece and shipped off to dolphinariums where their lifespan in captivity will only generally normally last a few years. 

At the end of the day, we can no longer afford to abuse and exploit animals for amusement or profit, as we do with dolphins. Whether or not they are indeed ‘nonhuman persons’ is still subject to further debate. However, it has become more and more apparent that in saving them, we may be saving ourselves as well.