Dr. Joshua Schiffman, Pediatric Oncologist from Primary Children's Hospital and Investigator with Huntsman Cancer Institute, both located in Salt Lake City, discusses how the DNA is studied at his laboratory at the Hunstman Cancer Institute with Roseanne Robinson, senior lab specialist; Kenneth Feld, Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment; Dr. Wendy Kiso, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey research and conservation scientist; Dr. Lisa Abeggel, Research Associate; Nicole Feld, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment; Alana Feld, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment; and Bonnie Feld.

One of the nation’s most recognized entertainment families recently [U+200B]announced a new funding program to help fight cancer in children.

The Feld family, which owns Feld Entertainment, Inc., has ventured into a new funding endeavor that involves taking blood samples from Asian elephants cared for by Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation and giving those samples to a research team in Utah.

Feld Entertainment is the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Apparently, Asian elephants rarely get cancer because of a gene in their blood that helps protect them from the disease.

This discovery was made by Dr. Joshua Schiffman who works at the University of Utah Department of Pediatrics oncology and Huntsman Cancer Institute.

“It’s really the most amazing story I’ve been involved with,” Dr. Schiffman said. “I learned that elephants rarely develop cancer.”

Dr. Schiffman didn’t do much with his discovery until he took his kids to the zoo and stopped by the elephant display. He found out that zookeepers drew elephant blood and he asked himself, “How do I get some of that elephant blood?”

He got to know the elephant zookeepers and before long, they would hand off extra tubes of elephant blood to Dr. Schiffman each week to use for research.

A year later, he attended the International Elephant Symposium where he met Dr. Dennis Schmitt and Dr. Wendy Kiso who work for Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation.

“It began a beautiful partnership,” Dr. Schiffman said. 

The Feld family and Dr. Schiffman met and now have a strong alliance to making a difference in cancer research.

“Because we have the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America, we obviously wanted to contribute financially,” said Alana Feld. “We want to make a difference in the field of research.”

In order to expedite research, the Feld family will donate $10,000 to children’s hospitals or treatment centers in the next 50 cities that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey visits.

The Ringling Bros. Children’s Fund will match each donation with an additional $10,000 donation to the Primary Children’s Hospital Foundation to sustain the PCH Pediatric Cancer Research Program, according to a press release on the new cancer research.

“Dr. Schiffman and the team from Primary Children’s Hospital, the Department of Pediatrics and Huntsman Cancer Institute, all in Salt Lake City, Utah, are studying why there is such a low incidence of cancer in elephants, what makes this cancer resistance possible in elephants and not humans, and how this may correlate to new treatments for pediatric cancers,” the press release stated.

The mortality rate from cancer in elephants is less than 5 percent compared to up to 25 percent in humans, because elephants have 40 copies of a tumor suppressor gene called TP53 compared to only two copies of that gene in humans, Dr. Schiffman said.

“This is really, really important work that we’re undertaking,” he said. “We’re not claiming that we know how to prevent cancer. But now we get to figure out how to translate this research back to our patients. We need to figure out how to put those TP53 genes into people.”

The money donated by the Feld family will help with the research.

“All and all, we’ll be raising $1 million toward pediatric cancer research,” Feld said.

Each city that Ringling Bros. visits, not only will they get money, but also performers from the circus will entertain sick children, Feld said.

Feld Entertainment operates Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, Moster Jam and Disney on Ice to name a few.

“Cancer affects so many families across this country, and unfortunately it’s becoming more common, especially in children,” Katy Wilkie, CEO of Primary Children’s Hospital, said in a statement. “We’re hopeful that our research will lead to new prospects of improved treatments for pediatric cancer.”

For more information on the new cancer research program, visit ringlingelephantcenter.com.

Interviewed for this story: Alana Feld, (703) 749-5505; Dr. Joshua Schiffman, (650) 464-0747.