Naked mole rats are notoriously ugly, but, for rodents, they have fairly long life spans and are resistant to getting cancer. If scientists are correct, it could be that a goo that’s found in mole rats is the secret to their cancer resistance, and the substance might one day lead to effective cancer treatments in humans.
How is it that the scientists discovered the goo, and its potential cancer resisting properties?
Biologists took cellular samples from naked mole rats. The rodents live to be an average age of 30, decades longer than other rodents. They are buck-teethed, wrinkly, have an innate resistance to cancer and pain, and can survive in underground conditions with little oxygen.
The researchers found an odd, gooey substance was clogging up their equipment. They didn’t know what it was, at first. Other cell cultures from humans and other rodents like mice and guinea pigs didn’t have that sort of gooey viscosity.
Study author Vera Gorbunova, a biology professor at the University of Rochester in N.Y., said in a news release:
“A lot of cancer research focuses on animals that are prone to cancer. We think it’s possible to learn strategies for preventing tumors by studying animals that are cancer-proof.”
Gorbunova’s co-author, Dr. Andrei Seluanov of the University of Rochester, added:
“Our lab technician was unhappy because she needed to disassemble the system and clean all this gooey stuff. I told my graduate student that we have to find out what the gooey substance is — it should be related to their cancer resistance. Of course, at that time it was just a wild guess.”
The gooey substance, they learned after it was tested, was identified as high molecular weight hyaluronan (HMW-HA). To see if the chemical was behind cancer protection, The scientists, to test out their theory that HMW-HA made the naked mole rats resistant to cancer, removed the substance from the mole rats’ cells.
After they did this, the researchers found the cells were more prone to developing tumors. This confirmed their theory that the compound played some role in cancer protection.
The gene HAS2, Gorbunova and Seluanov further found, was the gene responsible for making HMW-HA.
Though other animals also have this gene, the naked mole rats were different. Their HAS2 gene somehow slowed the frequency that HMW-HA gets recycled by cells. This “slowing down” of the rate that it gets recycled causes it to build up in the rodent’s tissues.
Hyaluronan aids in the tissue-healing process in animals, according to the scientists. They speculate that the rodents developed higher levels of it in their skin to adapt to life in underground tunnels.
The researchers will next test to learn whether HMW-HA could protect against cancer in mice. If those tests show the same results, the scientists hop to then experiment with human cells.
According to Seluanov, sometimes HMW-HA is used in anti-wrinkle creams and relieve knee pain from arthritis. He hopes that this sort of indirect evidence of the chemical helping people might suggest that the benefits could extend to anti-cancer care, as well.
The study was published June 19 in Nature.
It could be that other cancer-resisting factors that naked mole rats possess, combined with their HAS2 gene and HMW-HA, could be their secret to cancer resistance.
When the genome of the naked mole rat was sequenced, researchers noted other genes which play a major role in tumor suppression.
HMW-HA may not be the magic compound offering protection, according to Rochelle Buffenstein, a professor of physiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center who has researched the naked mole rat’s cancer resistance. She told National Geographic:
“This is now the third study to provide a potential mechanism. Clearly there are multiple anti-cancer defenses employed in the naked mole rat.”
More research on mice and humans is needed, but early results are promising. It could be that naked mole rat goo holds the secret to their cancer resistance. Perhaps one day, the goo will reveal to researchers how to transfer this cancer resistance to humans.
Written by: Douglas Cobb