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Meat-eating animals are more susceptible to cancer

A new study led by the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) has found that carnivorous animals such as foxes, leopards, and wolves are more susceptible to cancer than herbivorous animals like antelopes or sheep. These findings highlight the fact that cancer is not only a human affliction, and opens new pathways for understanding this disease in a variety of animal species.

The scientists studied cancer incidence in 110,148 zoo-kept mammals from 191 different species and found that, while cancer is a ubiquitous disease affecting all mammals, when it comes to cancer susceptibility not all animals are at equal risk. Meat-eating animals appeared to be more prone to develop this disease, in comparison to herbivorous ones. In fact, over a quarter of bat-eared foxes, clouded leopards, and red wolves in the study were found to have died of cancer.

“Overall, our work highlights that cancer might represent a serious and significant threat to animal welfare, [one] that needs considerable scientific attention,” said study co-author Fernando Colchero, an associate professor of statistics at SDU.

While previous studies have argued that cancer disproportionately affects larger, long-lived organism, due to their greater number of cell divisions and increased probability of somatic mutations, Professor Colchero and his colleagues have found that cancer mortality was “largely independent of both body mass and adult life expectancy across species.” 

A much more important factor determining cancer susceptibility appeared to be diet, “with carnivorous mammals (especially mammal-consuming ones) facing the highest cancer-related mortality.” According to the scientists, this could be explained by the fact that carnivorous animals have a lower microbiome diversity, or that they may be more susceptible to cancer-causing viral infections.

“These results highlight the key role of life-history evolution in shaping cancer resistance and provide major advancements in the quest for natural anticancer defenses,” the authors concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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