From its bucktoothed and wrinkled appearance the naked mole rat seems like one of nature’s sad jokes. But in reality they may hold the secrets to living longer lives and beating cancer.
Their nearly hairless hides and the long front teeth they use for burrowing and digging up food earned them a comparison to “tiny walrus — or perhaps a bratwurst with teeth.”
They don’t just look odd, these animals have unique societies as well — they live in underground groups similar to insects like ants and bees. The males all bow to a single dominant queen.
But life as a mole rat has some real perks — they can live for up to 30 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.
Naked mole rats probably didn’t evolve long chain hyaluronan to fight cancer, but to help squeeze through underground tunnels.
These findings could lead to treatments for humans in the future, Seluanov told Nature News, though it will probably be a few years still.
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