The naked mole rat may unlock the secrets of cancer.
Mole rats die from any number of natural causes, but cancer is not one of them: The rodent’s hormones produce a chemical that scientists say protects the rodent from cancer throughout its lifetime. And a new University of Rochester study suggests that experiments to extract and study this chemical could eventually find ways to use it to guard humans from cancer, as well.
The chemical is a sugar called hyaluronan, and all animal species have it. It exists between cells and helps to hold them together. But as the Rochester study notes, the mole rats have exceptionally large quantities of it, and theirs has a few exceptional properties, including much greater density than that found in other species, including humans.
The study, which was published in the journal Nature, points out that mole rats live as long as 30 years, which is 10 times the average life span of mice. Also, whereas 95% of mice die of cancer, cancer deaths are practically unheard-of among mole rats. These facts alone drew the researchers’ initial interest in studying mole rat cells.
The researchers extracted some mole rats’ cell tissue and then noticed the very viscous hyaluronan. On a hunch, they suctioned it out of the cells and then noticed that the cells suddenly became susceptible to cancer.
The researchers also identified the gene that codes for hyaluronan. It’s called HAS2, and other animals besides mole rats have it. But the mole rats’ HAS2 is different, in that it directs the rodents’ cells to recycle the hyaluronan more slowly than other animals’ body systems do. Consequently, the mole rats maintain higher concentrations of the sugar in their cell tissues.
Hyaluronan works in all animals’ systems to aid healing processes, and skin tissue that has higher concentrations of it becomes more elastic. The researchers
suggest that the mole rats developed more of it because their tunnel existence places heavier demands on their skin and necessitates more elastic skin tissue.
Some hospitals are already using hyaluronan-based treatments, although they use the human kind and they apply it to conditions unrelated to cancer. For example, hyaluronan injections are an increasingly popular treatment to rejuvenate skin cells and relieve knee arthritis.
The Rochester study’s authors want to investigate mole rate hyaluronan further. If it can block cancer in mole rats, then it just might prevent cancer in humans, too. The next step, the researchers said in a statement, will be to inject it into mice and see if it makes the mice more cancer-proof. If that works, human trials could follow.