Do we get cancer because we evolved big brains? That’s a depressing thought, but it may be true.

It’s a question that has nagged cancer researcher John McDonald, who says, “I was always intrigued by the fact that chimpanzees appear to have lower rates of cancer than humans.”

McDonald and team compared chimp-human gene expression patterns in five tissues: brain, testes, liver, kidneys and heart. They found distinct differences in the way programmed cell death operates, suggesting that humans do not “self-destroy” cells as effectively as chimpanzees do. This “self-destruction” is one of the primary mechanisms by which our bodies get rid of cancer cells.

McDonald says, “The results from our analysis suggest that humans aren’t as efficient as chimpanzees in carrying out programmed cell death. We believe this difference may have evolved as a way to increase brain size and associated cognitive ability in humans, but the cost could be an increased propensity for cancer.”

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