|Cancer free naked mole rat|
The laboratory of Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov, a husband-and-wife team of biologists at the University of Rochester, has the feel of a petting zoo. They maintain colonies of several species of rodents — some familiar, like mice and guinea pigs, and some much more exotic, like blind mole rats from Israel and naked mole rats from East Africa.
Vera and Andrei, The Mole Whisperers, chose a different path to research. Instead of using mice with cancers to find possible cures for cancers, they decided to ask a different question: Why do some animals not have cancers?
That question lead them to the horrid-looking naked mole rat, and to three years of investigation.
|The Mole Whisperers|
And they found something mysterious that was happening to these ugly little mole rats:
Naked mole rats produce a unique compound that appears to block them from getting cancer.
Rochelle Buffenstein, who studies the biology of naked mole rats at the University of Texas Health Science Center, called the discovery by Dr. Gorbunova and Dr. Seluanov “intriguing and most unexpected.” She is hopeful that the naked mole rat’s secrets may inspire new treatments for cancer.
Dr. Gorbunova and Dr. Seluanov are hopeful as well; they’re now investigating whether the compound can protect mice from cancer. “We think this mechanism could be moved into humans,” Dr. Gorbunova said.
What are the naked mole rats doing to save themselves from cancers?
It revolves around a sugar:
They also discovered that raising naked mole rat cells can be frustrating.
To raise cells, scientists put them in a liquid full of nutrients. After a few days, the scientists noticed, naked mole rat cells turn that liquid to syrup.
Stretchy skinned naked mole rat
“We said, ‘We need to find out what this goo is,'” said Dr. Gorbunova.
The goo turned out to be sugarlike substance called hyaluronan:
Dr. Gorbunova and Dr. Seluanov suspect that the long form of hyaluronan made by naked mole rats didn’t originally evolve to fight cancer.
Hyaluronan helps make skin stretchy, and naked mole rats are especially stretchy. “If you grab an animal, it feels like you’re removing their skin,” Dr. Seluanov said.
The long form of hyaluronan may have first evolved as an important adaptation for animals that have to wiggle through tight, rocky tunnels underground.
There we have it: wriggly little naked mole rats, with stretchy skins, develop goo to help their stretchiness so that they can travel through tight tunnels, and voila! A side benefit: no cancer cells.
Now let's hope The Mole Whisperers can develop a better goo for humans to make (without our skins becoming overly stretchy).