By Lindsay Key

The fact that the percentage of whale cancer deaths is so similar to humans – even though they are much larger – shows that whales have a special way of warding off cancer that humans do not have.”

Serene Cheng '19, Duke Scholar in Marine Medicine

Oxford University epidemiologist Richard Peto was puzzled by a paradox: If cancer is a function of individual cells going haywire, wouldn’t an organism with a lot more cells, say a whale, have a greater chance of getting cancer than a human or a mouse? 

Weirdly enough, in some cases, cancer incidence does not correlate with the number of cells in an organism, Peto observed in the 1970s. For example, although humans and whales are much larger than mice (1,000 times larger and 180,000 times larger, respectively), mice develop cancer much more often. Cancer is responsible for approximately 46 percent of mouse deaths, 25 percent of human deaths, and 27 percent of beluga whale deaths. 2019 Duke graduate Serene Cheng explored the paradox – specifically as it relates to whales – in her senior honors thesis. Continue reading