Student Feature: 'A whale mystery'

Jun 4, 2021

Whales are vital to the health of Bristol Bay. But could they help scientists find cure for cancer? Dillingham 11th grader Morgan Andrew explores the relationship between whales and cancer in this opinion piece.

North Pacific right whale spotted Aug. 6, 2017, about 50 miles east of Bristol Bay.
Credit NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center

Those of us here in Alaska are quite familiar with whales. However, these enormous mammals possess a medically astounding mystery. Whales, along with other large animals, are much less likely to develop cancer. Could further research on these majestic creatures’ resistance to cancer find us humans a cure? Hypothetically, yes. But our waters are becoming uninhabitable for our precious sea life at a devastating rate. Not only will we lose possible scientific breakthroughs through research, but we will also lose our traditions, our sacred sea life, and the precious waters we depend on.

Whales are magical life forms, for more reasons than one. Down to their very DNA, whales are some of nature’s most intelligent creatures. Most live up to around 50 years, while some species like the blue whale, can live up to 90 years. What does this have to do with cancer? Well, scientists have the basic understanding, that the larger the animal, and the longer it lives, the more likely it is to develop cancer. In simple terms, cancer is a mutated gene that causes abnormal cells to grow and multiply. Therefore, knowing how larger animals have more mass (more cells) the probability of a cellular mistake leading to cancer is more likely -- right? Wrong.

Whales, and other large mammals, are far less likely to develop cancer. However, our basic understanding of cancer says that the larger the mass of an animal, and the longer said animal lives, the more likely it is to develop cancer. But this is not the case. It’s actually the opposite, and that is called Peto's Paradox

Theoretically, as humans get bigger, our probability of developing cancer increases exponentially. But when it comes to animals, it’s quite the opposite.

Why is this? Well unfortunately we do not yet fully understand this paradox. Peto's Paradox, named after epidemiologist Richard Peto, was discovered when Peto was studying how tumors form in mice. While doing so, he came upon an incredible discovery. He observed the relationship between body mass and the progression of cancer, wondering why humans have 1,000 times more cells than mice, additionally having a much longer lifespan, and yet the two species do not suffer drastically different probabilities of developing cancer.

Now, from what we do know, larger animals, having billions of years of evolution, are easier to study and show evidence suggesting that such an amazing super-human cancer suppression has evolved in numerous species genes across the tree of life. 

How does this correlate to whales and their lack of cancer? Well, seeing as how whales are some of the earth’s largest living creatures, the fact that they are so unlikely to develop cancer is quite a fascinating feat. I believe further research on this topic could lead us to possible answers for one of humanity’s biggest scientific mysteries: A cure for cancer.

However, with the rapid rate of our earth and waters health declining, we may soon lose not only our irreplaceable sea and sea life, we may also lose many amazing scientific breakthroughs that could lead to the optimization of humanity’s medical and physical knowledge.

We must do everything in our power to protect our indispensable waters, not only for preservation and scientific knowledge, but also for the conservation and protection of our precious culture here in Alaska.

This piece was written for an English class at Dillingham High School. The students chose to write either a personal essay, a poem, or an opinion piece for the radio and web. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of KDLG.

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