The bucktoothed, wrinkled naked mole rat may hold the secret to beating cancer in humans.
After all, the ugly creature can live for up to thirty years (other rodents live about a tenth of that) and they are unusually resistant to cancer .
This resistance could be due to a molecule in the mole rats' connective tissues, according to a study published in the journal Nature on June 19.
This key molecule is called hyaluronan. It exists in long chains around cells holding them together in tissues. The hyaluronan chains found in mole rats are many times larger than the kinds found in shorter-lived mammals, like mice and humans.
The researchers think the long chains stop healthy cells from becoming cancer cells.
When Andrei Seluanov, of the University of Rochester, tried growing naked mole rat cells in the lab, they kept turning into a gooey, slow-moving syrup — not normal.
The substance was so thick it was clogging the drains in his lab, he told Nature News.
Seluanov wildly guessed that this weirdness might have something to do with the mole rats' weirdness. He saw that when injected into mice the cells didn't grow tumors, but they did when they were stopped from making hyaluronan.
That was pretty strong proof.
These findings could lead to treatments for humans in the future, Seluanov told Nature News, though it will probably be a few years still.
Naked mole rats probably didn't evolve long chain hyaluronan to fight cancer, but to help squeeze through the tiny underground tunnels that these animals burrow through. Up to 80 bald and almost-blind individuals huddle into their insect-like colonies (dominated by one breeding queen) in low-oxygen conditions.
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