Photo: Andrei Seluanov
Blind mole rats may hold the secret to healthy ageing in their genes, and new studies are indicating these strange animals have multiple tricks up their sleeves for shutting down cancer.The strange creatures live in underground burrows in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa, have an exceptionally long life span for their size. They also don’t develop cancers typically seen in long-lived animals, like humans.
That’s not where the oddities of this little mammal end: The blind mole rat and their cousins the naked mole rats are some of the only cold blooded mammals. They also don’t seem to experience pain in the same way we do and live up to 21 years, where as normal rats and mice have a maximum life span of 4 years.
“These animals are subject to terrific stresses underground: darkness, scarcity of food, immense numbers of pathogens and low oxygen levels. So they have evolved a range of mechanisms to cope with these difficulties,” study researcher Eviatar Nevo of the University of Haifa in Israel told Nature. “I truly believe work with these animals will bring a dramatic revolution in medicine.”
Nevo was working with researchers at the University of Rochester to study blind mole rat cells in the lab. Usually cells grown in the lab stop multiplying when they get too close to each other, putting the cells into sleep-mode. Cancerous cells don’t have this trait — they are able to just grow on top of each other.
Instead of going to sleep or growing continually, the researchers saw that mole rat cells are quickly killed off when their population grew too big. They published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Nov 5.
They made the cells grow in the lab by giving them a protein that makes them double 50 times over. The researchers saw that beyond 20 population doublings the cells started to produce a protein called interferon-beta, which seemed to make the cells die within three days.
“The cells have some way of sensing when they are over proliferating, but we still don’t know precisely how they sense that,” study researcher Vera Gorbunova, of the University of Rochester, told Nature. “This is what we need to find out next, because it could provide some clue as to how we could activate the same process in human cells.”
There are some doubts this research truly worked because it is very difficult to keep blind mole rat cells alive in a laboratory. A scientist from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical centre, Jerry Shay told Nature that this might not actually be a cancer-related pathway: “It is possible the researchers simply have not worked out adequate methods to maintain these cells long-term in culture,” he said. “It’s possible that the culture conditions are causing increased stress on the cells, resulting in cell death.”
If the researchers are right, this could be a switch that automatically turns off and kills cancer cells, and could be useful to develop new therapies to prevent cancer.
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