Cancer resistance seen in naked mole rats, hairless African rodents that live 30 years or more, may come from a sugar that keeps cells from clumping into tumors, scientists studying the animals say.
The naked mole rat lives about 10 times longer than mice. And unlike mice, 95 percent of whom die of cancer, the mole rat is impervious to the disease, spurring interest from scientists looking for hints on potential treatments for humans.
The sugar, called hyaluronan, exists between cells in tissue, helping to hold them together, according to the report in the journal Nature. While all animals have hyaluronan, the mole rat’s version is unusually large: about five times the size of that found in humans.
“A lot of cancer research focuses on animals that are prone to cancer,” said Vera Gorbunova, a study author and professor in the biology department at the University of Rochester in New York, in a statement. “We think it’s possible to learn strategies for preventing tumors by studying animals that are cancer-proof.”
In the study, the researchers tried to prompt tumor growth by exposing the mole rats to proteins that cause cancer in mice. Nothing happened until the researchers altered the production of hyaluronan, the researchers wrote.
Naked mole rats have fascinated scientists for years because of their unusually long lives. Researchers who sequenced the genome of the naked mole rat found very little changes in gene expression between a 4-year-old and a 20-year-old specimen, they said in a report published in the journal Nature in October 2011. That’s unusual, they said then; humans underexpress 33 genes when young, and overexpress 21 when they age.