This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Two years ago, Ryan Smith, founder and CEO of Qualtrics, launched a movement called “5 For The Fight” to end cancer. The effort has led to an unusual partnership with Dr. Joshua Schiffman at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and his research with elephants.
Elephants have about 100 times as many cells as humans. Every cell has some risk of becoming cancerous. Schiffman suggests that we should expect to see elephants die of cancer more often than humans, but we observe that elephants get cancer much less often. Schiffman’s research focuses on why that is.
Mike Maughan leads brand growth and global insights at Qualtrics and serves as the CFO of the 501(c)(3) charity 5 For The Fight that was created by Smith and his team. He says the movement has raised $2.5 million globally since the initiative was launched. Those funds are kept in the countries where they are raised.
For instance, the funds raised in Ireland were donated to the Cork Cancer Institute to establish the Dermot Costello Immunology Fellowship, named for the former head of European operations for Qualtrics, who passed away from cancer last year.
At the end of 2017, 5 For The Fight in the U.S. donated $250,000 to the Huntsman Cancer Institute specifically to fund Dr. Schiffman’s work with elephants. It turns out that they have 40 copies of the p53 gene; humans typically have only two.
“My view is that nature is always going to be smarter than people. Right. We can work as hard as we want in the laboratory. But the elephants have already figured it out,” Schiffman says.
His research focuses on trying to figure out how to either modify human genes to create more copies of this cancer-fighting DNA or to trigger the same body function another way. He was circumspect about putting a timeline on the research but hinted he’s making progress toward a drug.
The research is particularly salient to people with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, who have only one copy of the p53 gene and have a 90% or higher lifetime risk of developing cancer.
Jaron Allred is a preconstruction manager at Sure Steel, Inc. He and his three children—and several of his other relatives—all have Li Fraumeni. It was discovered when seven years after losing his sister to cancer, his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor just a week before he was. Today, Allred’s cancer has responded well to treatment.
Allred’s colleagues at Sure Steel have rallied around him, joining the 5 For The Fight movement. Employees are now given the option to give $5 or more every pay period to the nonprofit. For some, it is about supporting a friend. For others, it is about family members who are fighting cancer themselves.
Qualtrics, for its part, has 1900 employees in 11 countries and have the option to participate, too.
Schiffman, who had cancer as a child and still sees patients, sees himself as a triple threat to cancer: cancer survivor, cancer researcher and cancer doctor. He’s grateful to his elephant partners.
The research on elephants requires occasional blood samples, but Schiffman can use blood drawn during routine exams and so imposes no pain or testing on the animals.
For the event, Qualtrics brought in two trained elephants—Cindy and Janice—to represent their kin who have participated in the research. The handler, Joey Frisco, expressed excitement about the role elephants play in the research and assured me that the elephants, soon to be retired from the circus, are healthy and well treated.
Update: Joey Frisco has, in the past, been reported to have mistreated elephants under his care.
Maughan says the 5 for the Fight board is considering a “substantial new grant” for Dr. Schiffman’s elephant research at the next board meeting. Schiffman, who says nearly 50% of people will get cancer in their lifetimes, hopes everyone will pitch in.
Smith echoes his thoughts, noting that the 5 for the Fight movement is about getting $5 each from 10 million people, not just big donations from Qualtrics.